2016 Election: Third-Party Alternatives

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The Libertarian nominee for President, Gary Johnson, is close to being able to participate in the presidential debates alongside Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but can his presence bring attention to his party and put other small political parties on the map? Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor from 1995 to 2003, is currently polling at ten percent. To access the first scheduled presidential debate on September 26 at Hofstra University, Johnson needs fifteen percent in the polls. Gary Johnson is not the only independent candidate finding success. With Jill Stein, the 2016 Green Party nominee, polling around five percent, this could be the year that third-party candidates are able to present their stances and views on a national stage.

To understand the political influence and role of third-party candidates, the independent candidate of 1992, Henry Ross Perot, is a great starting point. Despite dropping out of the race and reentering only weeks before the election, Perot managed to win over nineteen percent of the popular vote. Perot was described as “‘…the candidate of the disaffected, the disenchanted, the fed up: the people whose contempt for politics has passed beyond cynicism to despair.’”(Burka qtd. Biography.com) In many ways, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein represent this disillusioned feeling as well. They both directly appeal to this mindset on the American political system. Gary Johnson, in his video campaign statement, says, “This is the most crazy election that any of us have ever seen”(Johnson 2016). Johnson also shows video clips of fighting between voters of different affiliations and chaotic television debates on news networks. By doing this, Gary Johnson paints himself as the reasonable alternative to the name-calling and anger of the campaign trail so far.

A dissatisfied attitude is not enough to bring Johnson to the presidential debates. The endorsement of U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), the first member of Congress to endorse Johnson, along with the support of other politicians with Republican affiliation, including former President George H. W. Bush’s son, Marvin Bush, have given credibility to Johnson. Jill Stein, on the other hand, has relied on the support of voters who previously supported Bernie Sanders (13% of Sanders supporters would vote for Stein). Stein has views that are similar to the Democratic Socialist platform on which Sanders ran. Dr. Stein, however, only has three endorsements. These endorsements, unlike those of Gary Johnson, do not come from disenchanted mainstream politicians. Jill Stein’s endorsements come from other Socialists with similar views to her. Having mainstream politicians supporting Gary Johnson gives him an advantage over Stein in terms of believability and ability to spread his message.

To understand why credibility plays such a significant role in third-party politics, the success of John B. Anderson is a great example. By June of 1980, as an independent, John Anderson had reached 26% in the national polls, more than any independent candidate since. Anderson was a former Republican Congressman from Illinois, who gained enough support as a Republican candidate in the 1980 primaries to participate in the presidential debate against Ronald Reagan as an independent (the Democratic nominee, President Jimmy Carter, refused to debate Anderson). What distinguished Anderson from his opponents was his willingness to stand apart from party doctrine and risk losing voters. Anderson confronted grain farmers about a proposed grain embargo against the Soviet Union and challenged gun owners about gun control. No other Republican candidate was willing to propose such controversial ideas or support them. Anderson became an independent to avoid losing to Reagan in the race for Republican nomination. As a mainstream politician, Anderson had an edge over the less successful non-traditional candidates before him.

Third-party candidates face multiple challenges on their road to recognition. Since these candidates have much less voter support than either the Democratic or Republican nominees, they can’t rely on party loyalty to give them a chance at the presidency. To be successful, a independent nominee must reach a national audience. Since their views are not well known by Democrats or Republicans, mainstream voters are less likely to choose candidates like Gary Johnson without seeing his views matched against those of a more traditional candidate in debate form. The fifteen percent requirement to appear in the presidential debates does a good job of shutting out independents and other third-party candidates because of their small number of loyal voters and little political influence. There are other barriers as an independent candidate. To appear on the ballot as an option, a prospective independent nominee must petition individual states, who each have different requirements. California requires 178,039 signatures to appear as an option, while Texas only requires 275. An independent candidate would need to acquire around 880,000 signatures in order to make their voice heard nationwide. This system makes it very difficult for independent candidates to draw support away from traditional candidates. However, this election year is different than most years. Gallup found a record number of Americans who would be willing to vote for a non-traditional candidate: 42%. Of this number, only 28.5% are strict independents. The rest are traditional voters who identify as independents, but lean towards Republican or Democrat. If a third-party nominee is to have a shot at the presidency, their voters must come from affiliated voters who are not satisfied with their party’s nominee. Perot took votes away from H.W. Bush, Jill Stein offers an alternative to Bernie supporters, Evan McMullin, a Never Trump candidate from Utah who has worked for the CIA, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Goldman Sachs, and as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, presents a more moderate Republican stance, and Gary Johnson describes himself as a saner alternative to Trump. In closely contested states like Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, the loss of support from voters who select the party alternative could change the outcome of a state. In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader of the Green Party is often accused of taking away the 537 votes that determined whether Al Gore or George W. Bush would win Florida. This critical state is pivotal to determining the President during close election years. If one outsider candidate can make that much of difference in the way a state swings, in addition to the high levels of independent voters, maybe Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have a chance to make their mark on the 2016 presidential election.


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2016 Election: Third-Party Alternatives