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Could Third Parties Upset The Two-Party System?

man on camera during a webinar
Serve America Movement / YouTube
Former Pinellas Congressman David Jolly is the new chairman of the Serve America Movement.

The ideological drift to the left or right for the top two political parties has led to some voters considering a third option. We look at how the polarization of politics could shake up Florida's political landscape.

Nearly 4 million voters have abandoned the two major political parties in Florida. That's about 26 percent, or one out of every four registered voters. It's also an increase of more than 1 million people in the last decade alone.

The lurching of the Republican Party to the right and Democrats to the left have left some voters in the middle scratching their heads about who to vote for, which party to support.

"The question is — do I even really want to bother voting again? I'm not sure," said Norma Fowler, who officially cast a pox on both parties about seven years ago.

Her dissatisfaction goes back to when she left the Republican Party when Newt Gingrich took the party to the right in the 1990s. But the Democrats didn't get a pass from the Pinellas Park retiree, either.

"I certainly don't have much respect for either party at this point," she said, "because they put party over people over and over again."

Jennifer Shields works for a non-profit group in Pinellas County. She hasn't been registered Democrat or Republican in years, saying neither party reflects her beliefs.

Shields voted for a third-party candidate in the 2016 presidential election.

"My thought process is, if enough people voted to at least have a third-party candidate be on the debate stage, and I do believe that if enough people were able to come together to vote for a third-party candidate," she said, "we would at least be able to hear another voice."

With voters like Fowler and Shields chipping away at the establishment, a lot of them are giving a third party a chance.

That's where the new "Serve America Movement", or SAM Party, comes in.
Its chairman is one of Florida's most prominent Republican refugees — David Jolly, a former Congressman from Pinellas County. He was an early critic of the ideology personified by President Donald Trump and turned in his GOP card three years ago.

"At SAM, we're determined to build a coalition around these shared values. To identify, recruit, and run viable independent candidates that can compete with the two major parties," he said during a recent webinar.

Jolly says if you join a particular party tied to one cause, you have to sign up for them all. SAM, he says, is different than other third parties like the Libertarians or Greens.

"Those alternative parties are still rooted in ideology and dogma," Jolly said. "What SAM has built is a coalition of former and current Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — we're all over the map — where ideology is not the defining factor in our association. In fact, I call ourselves the true big tent party — progressives, conservatives and Democrats."

Their main "shared principles" include problem solving, accountability, transparency, and removing gerrymandered districts that keep parties — like the Republicans have done in Tallahassee for twenty years — in power.

But can this really work?

"It's a very tough slog, just being honest," said Charlie Crist, Florida's former Republican governor, a failed Independent candidate for U.S. Senate, and the current Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg.

"It's a very tough slog, just being honest."
Democratic Congressman and former Independent Charlie Crist

He says he found he had greater political power by joining more established parties — that's how he won his race for Congress against then-Republican Jolly in 2016.

"You talk about some on the left, in the Democratic Party or some on the far right in the Republican Party; I think the majority of Floridians and Americans are pretty much down the middle," Crist said. "And I consider myself in that vein. But it's just very difficult to do that."

While the political will to run outside the two parties might be there, the resources aren't. The lack of a party structure means there's little money and few boots on the ground getting out the vote. During Florida's last election for governor, the four independent parties barely eked out one percent.

Jolly says he might run for governor next year. That continues his drift away from the Republican Party, which started even before Trump began his renegade campaign for president.

Voters like Norma Fowler say Jolly might just get her vote.

"I would give him a chance," she said. "Because he's an outsider. But he's an outsider of the establishment. He's not an outsider like Mr. Trump was."

Fowler says she doesn't see third-party candidates being a "wasted vote." If enough people vote for a third party, she believes their message just might get through.

Jennifer Shields feels confident she's not wasting her vote by voting for a third-party candidate. Shields said we'll be stuck in a never-ending cycle if people continue to believe that.

"I think if people stayed true to what they truly believed, it wouldn't be such divisive parties that we have now," Shields said. "If we kind of got away from that mindset of it being one or the other — and those are our only two choices — and we started to truly vote based off of our values, we might be able to see better candidates presented to us."

She says people need to find the courage to stop voting for parties that "don't represent us."

Still, the future strength of parties like the Serve America Movement is hard to predict.

The former Democratic mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner, ran for governor of New York in 2016 on the SAM ticket.

"Everywhere we went, and everyone we talked about, talked about a sense that our politics is broken, the stability is broken, and we want and desperately need to find a way to make ideas matter and to make civility matter," she said during a recent webinar, "and to focus on solving problems and how we can move forward together, as a democracy, as opposed to how we can cut and slice everyone into separate corners."

Miner came in fifth in that contest.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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