PICTURES OF THE WEEK

American flags wave in the breeze at the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum on the Mississippi River. (Advocate file photo by BILL FEIG)

BILL FEIG

On a recent rainy afternoon, about a dozen people gathered just off the LSU campus to take refuge from what they view as a particularly turbulent time in the U.S. political process.

“Instead of being a traditional political party, we’re an anti-party,” said Pat Bergeron, a Democrat turned Republican who is leading a new independent movement.

This is technically the start of a new party. But perhaps that’s not the right phrase.

The independent party of Louisiana has some 56,000 registered voters, but it hasn’t been organized. The Alliance of Independent Voters is hoping to change that.

The Louisiana Independent Party filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office in December to become its own entity.

Bill Bryan, another founder of the independent group who has ties to past campaigns, said he’s just frustrated with the rhetoric.

“Things have gotten so polarized,” he said. “It’s hard to have a discussion even. If people know you are a Democrat or if you are a Republican, you shut down."

Robbie Hogan, a political scientist at LSU who studies political parties, said the desire to start a new party is understandable.

“People believe generally that they wish that they had another option on the ballot,” Hogan said. “They wish that there was another viable option or party to cast their vote for.”

Often, people find themselves voting for the “lesser of two evils” in the major-party system, Hogan said.

That theme has been illustrated in countless reported anecdotes since the presidential election in November, but it’s not new.

“That something you see pretty consistently over the past several decades,” Hogan said.

Although voters often align with one party — tending to toe the party line on the ballot when they vote — those who align ideologically 100 percent with the parties is more rare.

“There are a lot of people who feel that way, who could go for a third party,” Hogan said.

Hogan said often, people are pushed to vote against a party and not necessarily for a party.

“It’s not because people like their parties so much; it’s because they dislike the other party a lot,” he said. “Partisanship is something that is a bigger motivator in people’s voting decisions today than it was 20 to 30 years ago.”

Louisiana’s unique jungle primary system, in which all candidates appear on one primary ballot and the top two vote-getters face each other in a runoff if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, could lend itself to those slate-type voting blocs.

“If Louisiana is heading toward more of a one-party Republican state, as it appears to be, that would be a way to differentiate between Republicans for people,” Hogan said.

In the 2015 gubernatorial election, when two-term Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards was viewed as a long shot in the race, some Democrats — including prominent members of the party — mulled pulling support for a more moderate Republican in the race, viewing it as inevitable that the GOP would take the state’s highest office.

Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson and former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, one of the most prominent members of the party, attempted to get Edwards to drop out of the race so Democrats could coalesce around a favorable Republican over front-runner David Vitter, who went on to lose to Edwards.

But Edwards largely has been viewed as an anomaly. He’s the only Democratic statewide elected official. The GOP holds majorities in the state House and Senate, and only one member of the state’s congressional delegation is a Democrat, representing a minority-majority district that didn’t draw a serious Republican contender for the seat in the most resent election.

In last fall’s U.S. Senate race, Democrat Foster Campbell, who was backed by Edwards, suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Republican John Kennedy, who had run unsuccessfully for the Senate twice — once as a Democrat.

Hogan said Donald Trump’s election also could “scramble” the traditional party system in a way that hasn’t been seen in generations. Though he went on to secure the GOP nomination, Trump wasn’t seen as a traditional Republican candidate and some die-hards continued to oppose his candidacy through the race against Hillary Clinton.

Trump has taken a more populist position on some issues, rather than sticking to the party’s traditional stance.

Hogan said if he continues that trend, it opens up opportunities for a more right-leaning party to emerge.

“That might upset the apple cart in a way that you might see an opening for a third party the way you haven’t in the past,” Hogan said.

Similarly, Democrats are trying to find their new place in the system, after the upset defeat of Clinton.

“They need to nominate someone who is more moderate, and if they do that, there may open room on the left,” Hogan said.

Some states allow so-called “fusion” ballots in which candidates can appear under multiple party tags. That offers a chance for more fringe support or can provide clues to people who otherwise aren’t sure how to cast their ballots.

“I think that’s a tool for a new party or a new movement in states,” Hogan said, adding that an obstacle for third parties is that state legislatures are dominated by elected officials from major parties who may be hesitant to allow the growth of a third-party challenge.

The new group is a product of what Bergeron calls the “bipolar” politics the nation is experiencing.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

During the group’s first official meeting, conversation veered from campaign finance laws to the potential implications of Trump’s presidency.

Bryan said he started noticing a shift in the 2014 elections.

Approval ratings for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress were low and with no obvious room to improve, given the partisan gridlock.

“People want a third party,” he said.

Bergeron and Bryan said that leaves a lot of leeway for them and like-minded voters. “If people are so disgruntled and all they can choose from is Coke and Pepsi, why can’t we have a Dr Pepper option?” Bryan asked.

Bryan said he sees Trump’s election and, to some extent, the popularity of Bernie Sanders, the Independent U.S. senator-turned-Democratic presidential candidate, as the emergence of the need for a third party of sorts. Neither fit the normal narrative of an establishment Democratic or Republican candidate in the race to replace President Barack Obama.

Bryan said he sees that recent movements have been co-opted by the major parties, rather than growing as their own. The tea party was absorbed by the Republican Party. The Black Lives Matter movement became a part of the Democratic Party.

Bryan said the partisan divide has given way to people ignoring or drowning out those who have differing opinions.

“You talk to people who see things the way that you do,” he said. “Nobody ever tries to get in the middle.”

In a Pew 2016 study, 40 percent of voters said they are independent.

“Millennials are the largest demographic we have right now, but those are also the biggest group of disgusted citizens in the political process,” Bryan said.

The alliance’s goal is to collect information and distill it to people who want a source that can cut through the political divide and provide information to a more moderate voter.

“People just listen to respond. They don’t listen to learn,” Bryan said.

An independent voting bloc, he said, would provide more leniency.

“It’s about the government working for the people,” Bergeron said. "It’s going to take a lot of time to do, but I think it’s worth it."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.