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PostSubject: The Third Party Mystery    The Third Party Mystery Icon_minitimeFri Jan 10, 2020 8:44 pm

On November 8, 2016, Americans were glued to their televisions, watching as the election results rolled in and waiting to find out who their next president would be. No matter which news station they turned on, they undoubtedly heard news anchors going back and forth about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s respective chances of winning the election. But there was something missing from the coverage that night. Two names were left out of the conversation: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

 The Third Party Mystery ILANA_US_The-Third-Party-Mystery

Although 22 percent of Americans do not identify with either of the two major parties, the third-party option is rarely taken seriously. Outsiders have occasionally managed to gain traction on the national stage, but more often than not, they struggle to gain even a percentage point or two in national elections. Since the beginning of the 20th century, only four third-party candidates have managed to win any electoral votes in a presidential election; the last time was in 1968, over 50 years ago.

Instead, third parties typically receive little attention on the national stage. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, 2016’s third-party presidential candidates, only managed to scrape together a combined 6 percent of the popular vote. Furthermore, there are currently only two senators and two representatives from third parties serving in Congress.

Third-party candidates struggle to gain traction in American elections for a variety of reasons, but they are not out of the game altogether. These outsiders work tirelessly to challenge the ways in which people think about the problems facing our country, and they have not given up the hope that one day one of them will sit in the Oval Office.

Logistical Struggles

Ironically, it is during presidential election years that Americans hear the most about third-party candidates, as the media rushes to cover anyone who even vaguely hints at the possibility of a third-party run. These outside bids, however, are usually short lived. In the 2020 cycle, one potential third-party candidate, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz, entered the race only to drop out about nine months later.

Third-party candidates often find themselves falling behind in the race for the presidency due to logistical struggles. Running a political campaign, especially on the presidential level, is difficult and complicated. In an interview with the HPR, Alice Stewart, the communications director for a number of Republican presidential campaigns, explained that “the party system is critical for campaigns because of the infrastructure that [the parties] provide, the network of people, and the resources … If you are running in an independent or a third-party campaign … the many years of built up infrastructure is just not there.”

The two major parties have established such significant campaign infrastructures and funding bases that it is nearly impossible for a third party to be competitive in a national election. Stewart explained that “all the money in the world is still not going to help you with the logistical challenges that any candidate will have to do what needs to be done to run for president.”

Another significant barrier to success for third-party candidates that Stewart identified was ballot access. “One of the biggest challenges that these third-party candidates face is in regards to ballot access, which is so hard. It is a state-by-state process … Sometimes it is about money, sometimes it is about polling, sometimes it is about getting names on a list to support you. These third-party candidates … rarely make it on the ballot in all 50 states … It is impossible to get the delegates if you are not even on the ballot.”

Searching for Acceptance

Despite their electoral shortcomings, third parties provide a space for those who have alternative worldviews to collaborate and align themselves with like-minded individuals. Marc Mercier, current chairman of the Massachusetts Libertarain Party and former Libertarian candidate for the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, recounted his own journey towards becoming a Libertarian in an interview with the HPR. “For a long time I was always part of one of the major parties, one or the other, and I probably joined the Libertarian party … maybe five years ago. I was just tired of … interacting with people who were not aligned with my vision of how society should be,” explained Mercier. “At some point I just decided that if I was going to continue to be politically involved, I was going to have to be politically committed.”

Although third parties can be a great space for those with unique worldviews to find community, there are many people who have a hard time taking them seriously simply because they lie outside of the mainstream. Americans are so used to the two-party system that it becomes difficult for many to accept an alternative.

Mercier explained that “the biggest challenge [for third parties] is that … as an instinct or by nature, humans are not accepting of anything different or out of the ordinary because it introduces uncertainty into their life. Any third party who expresses views that are not … of the broad accepted norm … on a physiological level, on an emotional level, their message will be rejected.” Thus, simply because third-party candidates do not identify themselves within the established two-party system, human psychology hinders their ability to win elections.

An Ideological Mission

According to Mercier, running as a third-party candidate is less about winning the race than getting out the party’s message and representing its principles. “I went into [my campaign for the Governor’s Council] with eyes wide, knowing that it was not very likely that I was going to convert voters to my view and … win that race,” he recounted. “The purpose of my race was to spread the message of Libertarianism and to offer an alternative point of view and to best represent the principles … so that the people who heard them might consider an alternative sometime down the road.” Although third-party candidates do not currently have a realistic chance of winning major elections, the mere act of running helps the party’s message reach audiences that they otherwise might not.

In an interview with the HPR, John Aldrich, a professor of political science at Pfizer-Pratt University, identified messaging as one of the major goals of third-party campaigns. He explained that if third-party candidates “keep plugging away,” they will lose over and over again, but their message will get across — and they will “slowly build support, and in the long run [they will] be able to win. And for that, you need people who are effective campaigners who do not mind losing and never holding office.”

He explained that third parties’ efforts are focused on “affecting policy on the part of one or both of the current major parties or on being on the right side of history and eventually being able to win office.” While Democrats and Republicans work towards short-term goals, third parties are focused on making gains — both ideologically and practically — in the long term.

Paths to Victory

Although the electoral landscape often seems bleak, third parties have not yet given up hope, and Mercier discussed strategies that would help the Libertarian party to get ahead politically. One idea for immediate results is to “get somebody that people already trust and are already familiar with, somebody who does not present all that much uncertainty because their views are already known … And what I think that would do is get people comfortable with the candidate to the point where they … can ignore the unfamiliarity of the party and just focus on … that one candidate so that they trust that person rather [than] the party they are affiliated with.”

But this is not the only way for the Libertarian party, or any third party, to secure a foothold. By running candidates in local elections, third parties are able to build a strong foundation of support. Mercier explained that in local elections, voters are more focused on who the person on the ballot is than what letter is next to their name.

Mercier said that the Libertarian party encourages candidates to “run for the local level offices … so that you are running and winning based off of your personal relationships in your community, and people trust you for who you are … And then the fact that you happen to be Libertarian might just be an introduction to them to that party … and their comfort level allows them to be more accepting of what you have to say … from the Libertarian perspective.” By using those personal relationships as a foundation, third-party candidates are able to gain the traction they need to win on a small scale. If enough third-party candidates are able to do this, then there is potential for them to seek office at a higher level and actually have a chance of succeeding in the future.

Political Outsiders in America

Third-party candidates are some of the country’s most visible political outsiders. Almost everyone knows that they exist, but they face a variety of electoral challenges — from a lack of party infrastructure and a struggle for ballot access to a need to battle the electorate’s aversion to someone outside the accepted two-party system. Any effort by a third-party candidate to run for a major office is almost inevitably futile at this point in time. This is not to say, however, that the efforts of these outside parties are without merit.

Winning is not their main goal, at least for the time being. Spreading their messaging, raising awareness about issues that are important to them, and affecting the policies adopted by the two major parties are all far more significant and realistic goals that third parties aim to achieve. By slowly acclimating the American public to their views and their existence, they hope to one day break into the system and succeed electorally. Third parties are playing the long game
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