I see the current state of affairs as an intensification, perhaps even a culmination, of four interrelated 25-year political trends: a growing distrust of conservative and liberal ideologies, a growing movement away from the two parties and toward political independence, increases in the racial-minority (which usually means Democratic-voting) share of the population, and a growing inability of the Republican party to bridge the gap between its populist and elite wings.
Together, these trends raise the specter of a serious independent, populist presidential candidacy for the first time in a century. And if the GOP doesn’t adapt to the shifting political terrain, there is even a remote possibility that the identity of America’s two dominant parties will change for the first time since the 1850s, which saw the death of the Whigs and birth of the Republicans. . . .
This trend toward pragmatic centrism can perhaps be most clearly seen in the rise of something that is now almost commonplace, the independent campaign for governor or president. Between 1928 and 1968, third-party presidential candidates represented ideological splinters from either the left (Henry Wallace in 1948, Socialist Norman Thomas in 1928 and 1932) or the Jim Crow South (Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968). . . .
Since 1988, however, this has changed, with third-party candidates running against rigid ideology instead of espousing it. Independent centrists have won governorships in Connecticut, Maine, and Minnesota; others have run strong but losing races. Ross Perot did well for a third-party candidate when he ran for president in 1992 and 1996, and speculation about independent candidates such as Colin Powell and Michael Bloomberg is now a staple of the presidential season . . .
If both of today’s parties continue their missteps, however, it is not at all inconceivable that a serious third-party presidential candidate could arise. In this scenario, by early 2012 independents would make up a record-high 40 percent or more of the electorate.