Third Parties: Why It Just Won’t Happen

Regardless of his “Aleppo moment” Johnson’s chances of winning this election in reality were pretty slim.  The unfortunate fact is that in our political system, due to institutional and psychological obstructions, third party candidate do not have the ability to win a Presidential election.

Tom Warwick

As a moderate Republican (read: closet Democrat), primary elections are typically nothing but heart break for me. The cycle is always the same: I find a candidate I like, I campaign hard for that candidate, I convince myself that candidate can go all the way, I assure my friends that “Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks Presidents,” and then inevitably I end up weeping into my Martini on election night when my guy comes in a distant third.  By the time the General Election comes around I usually end up halfheartedly voting for the lesser of two evils convincing myself they might at least put my one true love in their cabinet.

I thought this year would be different. Gary Johnson was different. This self-made millionaire, Everest climber, popular two-term governor who left the state of New Mexico with a billion in its bank account, told the Republicans to go fuck themselves and ran third party.  He didn’t pander to the Freedom caucus or the so called “party establishment.” He had a vision for what he wanted and went for it, and the best part was…we thought he actually had a shot.  Clinton and the Candidate-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named are two of the least popular major-party nominees in the history of American politics.  As the election became more and more about being AGAINST someone else, the American voters were clamoring for someone, anyone, who could stand as a symbol FOR something.  Gary was our guy. As the election bore on and became increasingly ugly, Johnson’s poll numbers began to grow.  By September, Johnson was within reach of the required 15% needed to be invited on to the debate stage.  Then, with one question my hopes and dreams were snuffed out, Johnson lost the momentum and inevitably will lose the election. Regardless of his “Aleppo moment” Johnson’s chances of winning this election in reality were pretty slim.  The unfortunate fact is that in our political system, due to institutional and psychological obstructions, third party candidate do not have the ability to win a Presidential election.

Let’s start at the beginning, getting on the ballot. Due to our federalist system of governance, elections and the laws governing them are left up to the states, and while this may bring a tear of joy to the eyes of your average libertarian, it’s a huge pain in the ass for their Presidential nominee who now has to navigate fifty different sets of rules. Among these varying systems, the most common way of getting on the ballot is through collecting signatures on a petition of candidacy.  In order to get the needed amount a party needs one of two things: lots of organization or a lot of money.  Typically third parties will hire paid workers to go and gather signatures, which is efficient but not cheap. Election website and wonk wonderland, Ballotpedia estimates that the cost of collecting signatures in 2014 ranged from $1.05 to $6.44 per signature. On the upper end of that range, we’re talking about a $5.5 million investment to get on the ballot in all 50 states. A big task to ask of a small organization, and a perfect segway into the next challenge: Federal campaign financing rules.

In federal elections, Presidential candidates from each of the major parties are eligible for a public grant of up to 20 million dollars to use for campaigning in the general election.  While this money comes with strings, such as being limited to spending to the amount of the grant and not being able to accept private contributions, for a third party that might not have a large fundraising base, this public financing is a huge boon.  This money can be used to promote their message, hire signature collectors, and finance all other traditional parts of a political campaign. Unfortunately, there is a catch. The money is only awarded if the party’s candidate in the previous election was able to win enough of the popular vote, if they didn’t reach this benchmark the party gets nothing.  This creates a circular problem for third parties where, since they are unable to get the required number of votes and do not receive federal funding, they are not able to get on the ballot which, once again, disqualifies them from federal funding.

So let’s assume a third party is well organized and reached the threshold requirements in the last election to qualify for federal funding.Great! However, there is still one major roadblock standing between our heroic third-party candidate and the White House: America’s winner-take-all system. If you’re reading this article (which means you’re probably my mom., Hi Mom!) you already know that our Presidential elections are decided, not by the popular vote, but by the electoral vote. These votes are awarded by each state and, with only two exceptions, the winner of a state wins the entirety of that state’s electoral votes (The exceptions being Nebraska and Maine). This winner-takes-all system results in a strong incentive for candidates to organize themselves into a small number of broad coalitions that would appeal to a wide range of voters (ie political parties). Often times, even going as far as to incorporate the leading issues of a third party into their own platforms as a way to bring in more members (there is a reason why Democrats like the environment and Republicans hate everything). As a result these far reaching organizations begin to gain a monopoly on parts of the electorate and effectively crowd out smaller or single issue organizations. Because of this it becomes harder for other parties to win elections, and as a result, communicate their message to the electorate. After a while, and a lot of losses, a mentality of inevitability begins to form and phrases like “wasting your vote” began being thrown around. Since the Republican and Democratic parties are the only ones that win elections, they continue to be  the only ones who can win elections.

In writing this I do not mean to suggest that I believe third parties should not be included in elections. On the contrary, I believe they have a lot to add to the national conversation.  In fact,while third parties have a poor track record of actually winning elections, they have had significant influence on policy. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Socialist party and its Presidential nominees helped to popularize the women’s suffrage movement. By running for office and helping to drive the conversation, they were also able to advocate for child labor laws in 1904 and, along with the Populist Party, introduced the notion of a 40-hour work week, which led to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.  More recently, this same level of influence was exercised in the 1992 when Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran as the nominee for Reform Party. Perot ran on a platform that advocated reducing the federal budget deficit, an issue previously ignored in elections, but now is the rallying cry of most Republican, and Libertarian candidates, as well as some Democrats. However, until they are granted more equitable access to federal campaign financing, allowed greater ballot access, and obtain greater coverage through the media, I believe that it is incredibly unlikely, bordering on impossible, for a third party candidate to win the Presidency.

Photo Credit: Charles Schulz

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