If you’re rallying behind a candidate who’s lagging in the polls, a primary race this long and costly can be extremely discouraging. Idealistic college students are especially likely to resent the attention paid to spendthrift “establishment” candidates if they’d rather see Republican grassroots candidate Ron Paul or former Senator Mike Gravel in office. But even the Dennis Kuciniches of the world have received considerably more attention than third parties’ candidates, who represent some of the most vital forces for change in American politics.
Many students, even those who identify with party platforms outside the narrow band of blue and red, tend to dismiss third party candidates as woefully unelectable. But democracies are set up with the intent that people will vote for the candidate that serves their interests, not the candidate most likely to win.
Admittedly, naysayers have a point about electability: A third-party candidate faces difficult odds in winning the next presidential election. However, a strong show of support for a particular third-party platform might compel the two major parties to incorporate elements of that platform into their own.
There is a strong historical precedent for exactly this scenario. Most recently, Ross Perot’s popularity in 1992 (he won 18.9 percent of the popular vote) forced both parties to seriously address the ballooning national debt. For Perot, who had structured his campaign around its potential to “send a message” to incumbent parties rather than to win the presidency outright, this was a significant victory.
A hundred years earlier, the Populist Party—which was the first to advocate a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, and the eight-hour workday—won almost 10 percent of the vote in the 1892 election. The Democrats were so shocked that in 1896 they claimed the former Populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan, for their own, after adopting the party’s most attractive planks. The Republicans, who won that election, ultimately enacted many populist measures. The Populists lost the election, but their vision of America had been incorporated into the mainstream.
Even dyed-in-the-wool Democrats or Republicans sometimes stand to gain by voting for a third party. Because of the structure of the Electoral College, voting for Republicans in a blue state or Democrats in a red state is not likely to change the election. Why not draw attention to a specific issue by voting for the relevant third party instead?
No amount of heavy lifting will help the Republicans win California anytime soon, so a free-trade advocate would gain nothing by voting for them. However, if a critical mass of free-trade Republicans voted for the Libertarian Party, it would send a powerful message to both major parties that free-trade and non-interventionist foreign policy issues are important to voters.
Moreover, a strong showing in a given election cycle makes third parties much more viable in the next cycle thanks to federal funding. Since the 1970s, a party nominee who reaches the five percent threshold in the general election qualifies his party to receive federal funding for its candidates. Though federal funding may not be enough to keep pace with Clinton and Obama, it would easily be enough to make the Libertarian candidate a household name.
Part of the problem with building up confidence in third parties is that the two major parties have a stranglehold on the media, and it is in their self-interest to advance the view that third parties are not worth a rational person’s time. Leading up to the 2000 election, Democrats chanted to would-be Green Party supporters the refrain that a vote for Ralph Nader was a vote for Bush. Losing the White House ingrained a powerful message in the consciousness of a certain group of environmental-leaning liberals: Your party hurts America, so either conform, or get out of politics. This likely contributed to the Green Party’s decline in popularity since 2000.
What is troubling is that dwindling support for third parties feeds on itself. The choice not to waste a vote on a third party for fear that it will never win results is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like closing an account because of rumors that there will be a run on the bank.
This is a shame, because third-party issues are important to America. The two major parties have become so accustomed to framing the debate that they are deaf to viewpoints different from their own. Worse, mainstream America has come to understand issues according to narrow terms set by Democrats and Republicans. Vital issues that began as third-party agendas, such as nominating conventions, anti-slavery, or most recently, global warming, sometimes slip into public discourse. But the process is so slow and sporadic that legitimate concerns of Americans are too often ignored.
With the election nearly a year away, there is still time for third-party candidates to grow in popularity. A declaration of candidacy by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would likely generate a groundswell of support. Though Bloomberg’s prospects for winning as a third-party candidate are slim, there is still a chance for his candidacy to exert a powerful influence on the direction of the country, as long as enough people are willing to vote for him.
We are lucky enough to live in a democracy that gives us the right to vote for the candidate we most respect. It’s time we started exercising that right.