The Improbability of Third Parties
On November 8th, 2016, the day of the 58th presidential election, American voters were in a conundrum. Which candidate was worthy enough of the presidency? According to CNN’s exit polls, 43% of voters had a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, and only 38% had a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. 53% of Americans would have felt concerned or scared if Clinton won, while 57% felt the same way about Trump. The 2016 election was one of the most divisive and polarizing elections in history, leaving voters on both sides of the aisle frustrated and dissatisfied with the presidential nominees. So how come there wasn’t a third, more popular, candidate for the presidency?
In fact there was, two third party candidates ran for office, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. However, these candidates were hindered by the current election rules that heavily favor a two party system, and failed to pose a major threat to Clinton or Trump. In the end, Johnson, received 3.3% of the popular vote and Stein, received 1% of the popular vote. This was a huge improvement for third party candidates in comparison to the 2012 election, where the Libertarian nominee barely achieved 1% of the popular vote, and the Green Party nominee achieved .36%. However, it’s shocking that these candidates did not receive more public support in an election filled with great dissatisfaction of the major party candidates.
There are many restrictions in place to legitimize presidential elections and prevent just anyone from running for office. These same rules prohibit legitimate third party candidates from making it on to national ballots and into presidential debates. In order to be placed on the ballot, the candidate must acquire a petition of signatures from every state, each with individual requirements (California: 178,000; Illinois: 25,000; Maine: 4,000). According to Ballotpedia, to be placed on the national ballot, it would require, in total, approximately 860,000 signatures. The televised presidential debates are the easiest ways for candidates to gain national recognition. Around 84 million people tuned into the first Trump/Clinton debate, making it the most watched debate in U.S. history. However, in order to qualify for a presidential debate, a candidate must receive at least 15% support from voters in the national polls. If the third party candidate cannot receive enough signatures from every state, or makes it on the primary ballot, but does not receive enough of the popular vote, they are at a huge disadvantage. The most successful third party presidential candidate was Ross Perot (Independent) who received 18.9% of the popular vote in the 1992 election. His success was most likely due to the fact he qualified to participate in the national debates. However, even if a third party candidate makes it that far, such as Johnson who made the ballot in all 50 states, the first libertarian candidate to do so in 20 years, he only polled at 8%. Overall, trends have shown that constituents would rather vote for candidates who actually have a chance at winning rather than risking their vote on a minor candidate.
Another challenge third party candidates face is the pressure to join large coalitions. The GOP and DNC have resources, connections, and alliances that help fund their party. Third parties have a smaller amount of registered voters and consequently receive significantly less funding, preventing them from competing at the same level as the Republican or Democratic party. In 2016, Clinton raised 1.4 Billion, with 43% (598.2mil) coming from the Democratic Party and joint fundraising committees. Meanwhile, Gary Johnson only raised 13.3 Million throughout his campaign, with 4 million coming from Political Action Committees (PAC’s). Clinton raised more than 100x more money than Johnson. Although minor parties are casted as ineffective at electing their own party members into the oval office, they can have a major impact on presidential elections. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran for the presidency as an Independent and won many voters who were predicted to vote for Al Gore. On the night of the election it was unclear who the winner was, TV networks including ABC, FOX, CNN and others relied on exit polls and broadcasted Gore to have won Florida and the presidential election. The presidency ultimately boiled down to less than 600 votes, and the state of Florida. The following day Bush shockingly won Florida by 5 electoral votes, but the democratic party was unsatisfied and wanted a recount. The Bush v. Gore recount case made it all the way to the Supreme Court where the justices voted 5-4 that there was “no alternative method of a recount in a timely manner.” This became one of the most consequential supreme court rulings in recent political history. Although Nader did not win the election, running as a third party candidate made enough of an impact to swing the election.
Today, in the 116th Congress, there are only 3 third party representatives in the House of Representatives and Senate combined. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) are the only 2 Independents in the Senate, yet caucus with the Democratic Party, and for Sanders runs under the Democratic Party in presidential elections. These representatives realize the importance of aligning with a major party as a way for Independents to have a chance at succeeding and gaining national support. The only exception to this trend is newly Independent Congressman Justin Amash. Amash recently stepped down from the Freedom Caucus, a coalition of Republican and Libertarian politicians, and is officially separating himself from both the Republic and Democratic parties. Without the support of a major party, we will have to wait until the next election to see if Amash can break the trend and win a re-election, this time completely Independent.
History indicates that third parties cannot succeed in the U.S. under the current political system. There will not be any major reform by the 2020 presidential election. And unless there is a major change in our election rules, a third party candidate will not become president any time soon.