There’s a Third Party?

Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party debated at the Hilton Chicago on Tuesday, October 23. | Photo courtesy of Flickr user irony poisoning via Flickr Commons

On Election Day, most citizens of the United States will have two options: choose between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, or break the mold and vote for one of four major third-party candidates, the names of who many people wouldn’t even recognize. There’s Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party.

In all likelihood, very few people will choose to vote for a third party. The chances are only about 5%, according to a poll conducted by the Gallup organization. The poll, which was taken in June, also said that support for third-party candidates tends to decrease as the election approaches, meaning that number is likely even lower now. These numbers are not surprising. Third parties have never stood much of a chance in the political realm, at least not at getting a candidate in office.

However, in spite of this fact, these political underdogs are still around and attempting to stir things up. People vote for them too. Not many, but they still do.

Take Chris Batista (SED ’14). He is considering voting for Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. He said he is “sick of the two party system,” quoting political analyst for Fox News Andrew P. Napolitano when he called the major parties “two wings of the same bird of prey.”

Johny Johnson
Gary Johnson, the candidate for the Libertarian Party. | Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Batista admits that Johnson will probably not win, but said he hopes the candidate will get enough support to shed light on the Libertarian Party’s stance, perhaps even prompting the Republican Party to reevaluate its platform.

One of the primary reasons third parties exist and why people vote for them is this hope that they will somehow bring to light issues that are otherwise being ignored. But, as third parties will readily point out, there are a number of things inherent in the U.S.’s bipartisan system keeping them from making the kind of impact they would like.

Take the presidential debates, for example. The Commission on Presidential Debates requires candidates meet three criteria in order to participate:

  • Meet the constitutional requirements for presidential candidates (age, naturally born citizen)
  • Be on the ballot in enough states to have a statistically possible chance of winning the minimum 270 electoral votes
  • Have at least 15% support on average in public opinion polls from five different polling organizations

That last one, which was adopted 2000, is what third parties have a hard time with. Much to their dismay, only two third-party candidates have ever been allowed to participate in presidential debates. John Anderson, who ran as an independent in the 1980 election, debated with Ronald Reagan that year, but was refused the opportunity to participate during the 1984 race between Reagan and Carter. In 1992, Ross Perot participated in all three debates between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, but was not allowed to be a part of debates in 1996.

This year, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala were arrested for trespassing when they entered the debate grounds while protesting the exclusion of third parties. Stein used this story to argue for the injustice of the bipartisan system in a debate between third-party candidates held in Chicago just a week afterward.

Many third parties point to examples of so called unfairness like this one to call for a system reform. However, Dino Christenson, a professor of political science at Boston University who specializes in American voter behavior, said it is unlikely they could ever accomplish this goal.

“I think the idea of an independent, third party that’s going to reform the American political system, or change the American political system is not foreseeable,” he said.

He pointed to the case of multi-party, proportional systems in which parties are awarded representation in government according to how many votes they win. Even in these systems, he said, smaller parties inevitably must negotiate with bigger, more powerful parties. The result is that many of the more unpopular issues championed by smaller parties rarely actually turn into policies, contrary to what those in favor of a multi party system would argue.

“To have perfect political representation sounds really nice, but I don’t know that it’s working in any system,” said Christenson.

Although it is unlikely a third-party candidate will win this year’s election, they could play a major role in the margins. The Boston Globe reported two weeks ago that particularly in swing states like Virginia, New Hampshire and Colorado, third parties could siphon just enough votes away from the candidates to determine the neck-and-neck race between Governor Romney and President Obama.

That being said, Christenson is skeptical they will have much of an impact.

“I don’t have a great deal of confidence a third party will play much, if any role in the election,” he said.

Even Batista said that although he is thinking about voting for Johnson, he prefers Obama between the two major candidates and is hesitant to deprive him of a vote. This view reflects Christenson’s perspective that most voters will base their decision solely on whether they want the current president to stay in office.

“It’s a dichotomist election,” he said. “It’s a choice between Obama and not Obama. Not Obama, Romney and one of several third party candidates.”

About Jake Lucas

Hi there I'm Jake. I'm a journalism major/environmental policy and analysis minor originally from the suburbs of Chicago. I'm interested in all kinds of science, politics and economics. I also like bears, singing and podcasts. If you have any questions, tips or just want to shoot the breeze, email me at Or, find me on Twitter @JakeDLucas.

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