Presidential scholar Robert Dallek says the voters are so displeased with the status quo that there is fertile ground for a third party next year. He adds a historian's perspective to the arguments of commentators and political strategists who see Americans as increasingly receptive to an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans in 2012.
Dallek says that there may be a parallel to the 1850s when the Whig party disintegrated over the issue of slavery, giving rise to the Republican party and the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Dallek told me that Americans today are "alienated by the country's politics"--and that includes a deep dissatisfaction with both major parties. He said, "You have this real sense of distortion of the economy, a real sense of concentrated wealth" that Americans believe is hurting the middle class. Eight out of 10 Americans tell pollsters that the country is heading in the wrong direction.
As the Democrats and Republicans game out the impact of a possible third-party presidential bid in 2012, an independent group called "Americans Elect" has been working to qualify a centrist ticket for the ballot in all 50 states. The group has raised more than $20 million and has won places on the ballot in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and several other states so far.
The problem for "Americans Elect," which was founded by investor and philanthropist Peter Ackerman and others, is that it has no natural leader to head the ticket and no comprehensive platform. The group has devised a complicated process for determining a nominee and a vice presidential running mate, but that won't happen for months and it could be very messy.
But the potential remains, and it has the Democrats and the Republicans worried.