Third Party Presidential Candidates Face Barriers To Election

Oct 4, 2012

By Brendan Conley, staff writer – October 4, 2012

More than two people are running for U.S. President. People who are unaware of this may be forgiven, as there has not been a lot of talk about it.

Although the electoral system in many countries features multiple parties, the United States has been dominated by two major parties for most of its history, with the Republican and Democratic parties holding sway since the Civil War. Though many voters are dissatisfied with candidates from the two dominant parties, viable third party or independent candidates have not made much progress.

Not since George Washington served two terms as the first President of the United States has the election been won by someone with no party affiliation. The father of our country warned against a “formal and permanent despotism” that would accompany the establishment of party politics. [1]

In modern times, third party candidates have never come close to winning the highest office in the land, playing at best the role of spoiler. In 1968, George Wallace of the American Independent Party garnered 46 votes in the Electoral College, though Republican Richard Nixon still won a landslide victory. In the 1992 election cycle, independent candidate H. Ross Perot qualified for the ballot in all fifty states, was included in the Presidential debates, and at one time held a lead in the polls, but he ultimately finished with no electoral votes. The 2000 race was incredibly close, with the Supreme Court finally deciding the election in favor of George W. Bush. Although numerous factors were at play during that election, many Democrats consider Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy to have been a spoiler. Nader insisted that he was the better candidate, and that Al Gore should have withdrawn from the race. [2]

Who Is Running for President?

On November 6, Americans will once again choose their President. Or, due to the vagaries of the Electoral College system, they will choose “electors,” who will choose the President. The major party candidates – Republican Mitt Romney and incumbent Democrat Barack Obama – have launched multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and are featured daily in news media. But there are other choices.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein delivers remarks during a press conference July 11, in Washington, D.C.

Jill Stein is the Green Party candidate for President. She is a physician and activist who also ran for Governor of Massachusetts. Stein said she decided to run during the debt-ceiling crisis, which she described as an attack on government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. She has advocated for a “Green New Deal,” which would include government investment in renewable energy jobs. She has said that both major parties represent only the “one percent” of richest Americans. Cheri Honkala, a Philadelphia activist and founder of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, is her running mate. Stein is expected to earn federal matching funds for her campaign, only the second time a Green Party candidate has done so. [3]

The Libertarian Party has chosen former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson as its Presidential candidate. As Governor, Johnson was known for cutting the state’s budget while lowering taxes, for advocating for the decriminalization of marijuana and for using his veto power over 200 times, more than the governors of the other 49 states combined. Johnson holds views consistent with American Libertarianism: fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He has vowed to end foreign wars and cut the military budget and has received the highest score from the American Civil Liberties Union of any candidate. Johnson ran for the Republican Party nomination as well, along with fellow Libertarian luminary Ron Paul. Johnson’s running mate is Judge James P. Gray. [4]

Rocky Anderson is running for President on the ticket of the newly-formed Justice Party. Anderson is a former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, where his environmental initiatives gave him a reputation as the “greenest” mayor in the United States. Anderson is a human rights activist and has called for an end to the war on drugs. [5]

Why Can’t They Win?

For most voters, third party candidates are either invisible or a mildly interesting blip on the national radar screen. “Everyone knows” that either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will win the election, and this may be true, but the reasons behind that truth can be revealing.

Some say third party positions are too far out of the mainstream. However, the Republican and Democratic parties are often out of step with popular opinion as well, and on some issues, third party candidates are closer to the majority view. To test this for yourself, pay a visit to, and take their quick poll on your position on the issues. (It is free and you do not have to register or submit any personal information.) The site tells you which candidate agrees with you the most on the issues. Many people are surprised to learn that a third party candidate represents their viewpoint to a greater degree than either of the major party choices. Users of the conservative Fox News website side with Gary Johnson nearly as much as they do with Mitt Romney. Users of the liberal Huffington Post like Jill Stein as much as they like Barack Obama.

Some observers have claimed that third party candidates lack the credentials to run for office in the first place. However, Gary Johnson served two terms as a state governor, earning twice the experience of Republican Mitt Romney.

In fact, there are several roadblocks preventing third party candidates from running viable campaigns.

One obstacle to success for third parties is access to the ballot. The Republican and Democratic parties, with their multi-million dollar war chests, are routinely able to place their candidates on the ballot in all fifty states. Third parties face what for them are formidable barriers. Each state has its own ballot access rules, some calling for hefty registration fees, and some requiring the signatures of a certain number of registered voters. For small organizations with limited resources, the simple action of getting their candidate’s name on the ballot is not always achievable.

The Presidential debates play a central role in the election process, and third party candidates are usually excluded. Since the 1988 election, the debates have been organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit corporation controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties. The League of Women Voters withdrew its support from the debates, stating that secret agreements about which candidates could participate and what questions would be asked amounted to a “fraud on the American voter.” Green Party and Libertarian Party candidates have been arrested attempting to participate in the debates. [6] This year, at least three corporate sponsors, including Philips Electronics and the YWCA, have withdrawn their support because of Gary Johnson’s exclusion from the debates. [7]

Debate organizers often claim that they are only limiting participation to candidates who stand a chance of winning, but this can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the debates are an important way for voters to learn about the candidates’ positions. The same feedback loop occurs with regard to media coverage. Mainstream media sources cover even the most obscure details of both the Obama and Romney campaigns, while third party candidates remain practically unknown. The skewed coverage is often justified by claiming that the public has no interest in third party candidates, but it may be difficult for such interest to build if information is lacking.

America’s two-party system will not change overnight, but this election season is a good time for the public to become more informed about the multiple candidates vying for the Presidency.