By now, hopefully you know all about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But did you know Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Virgil Goode and Rocky Anderson are also running for President? They are all legitimately nominated candidates who will be on the ballots of a number of states – Johnson in fact will be on the ballot in all but 2 states. They represent so-called “Third Parties” – Johnson is a Libertarian, Stein of the Green Party, Goode from the Constitution Party and Anderson of the Justice Party – and have a variety of experience in government (from a governor to a congressman to none at all) and in careers spanning medicine, law, politics and other fields. And, while it’s unlikely any of these candidates will win the election – or even a single state, for that matter – they still may have a considerable impact on this election. Yet many Americans have never heard these names – nor the parties they represent. How can this be?
Largely, it’s due to the overall dominance of the two primary political parties in the US – the Democratic and Republican parties. These two parties have controlled the Presidency for 160 years and the Congress for 156 years, so long that everyone living right now and their parents (and most of their parents as well) haven’t seen anything different. However, it wasn’t always that way – and there’s no reason to say it will always stay that way. The US Constitution is silent on the issue of political parties, and George Washington remained independent for his entire life. Prior “major parties” include the Federalists, Democratic-Republicans (or Anti-Federalists), the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs – each was firmly entrenched in its time and yet each ultimately split, imploded or otherwise faded away into the pages of history. It is certainly possible then that the same might eventually happen to one or both of the current major parties. But for now they so dominate American politics that it is all most potential voters know – none of the third party candidates was invited to the debates or are included in the day to day chatter in the news media.
Given their near-exclusion from the campaign process, limited funds and especially their limited mind-share among the voting public, how can these third party candidates impact the election in a meaningful way? They can influence this election by taking away key votes from Obama or Romney in swing states, changing the outcomes in those states and thus swinging the election to the other party. There is certainly precedence for this – third party candidates such as Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968) have won states and electoral votes, taking these votes from major candidates. Former President Theodore Roosevelt (having grown dissatisfied with the performance of his successor William Howard Taft) ran as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912 and actually finished second in the election overall behind the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, carrying 6 states and 27.4% of the popular vote. And more recently the independent Ross Perot won nearly 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 election, taking large numbers of votes from the incumbent George H.W. Bush and helping bring Bill Clinton into the White House.
Of course, none of this year’s crop of third party challengers is a Ross Perot..and certainly none of them have the history or pull of a Teddy Roosevelt. But given the closeness of this election, even a less successful challenge can make a big impact. In the tight Florida race that ultimately decided the 2000 Presidential Election (in the Supreme Court, no less), George W. Bush won the state and thus the election by 537 votes. Green Party candidate Ralph Nadar had captured 94,000 votes in Florida, many of them at the expense of Al Gore, likely costing him the state and the election. The Constitution Party candidate Goode has the best chance of playing a “Nadar-type” spoiler in a specific area in this election – in the key swing state of Virginia he is a fairly popular former conservative Congressman. If he pulls even a fairly small (10,000-20,000) number of his former constituents, he could give the state to Obama. On a nationwide basis, the overtures made to the religious right by selecting Paul Ryan (see our prior article on this) as his Vice President could open Romney to losing votes to the fiscally conservative but socially liberal Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. The few thousand votes Johnson could pull per state would influence the results in a number of close swing states, including Colorado, New Hampshire and Ohio.
Of course, if the early poll numbers are incorrect and the margin is wider for Romney or Obama than currently projected, this could all be irrelevant. But if on election night it’s close, nip and tuck – take a look at how well Johnson and Goode are polling (and how much they are taking from Romney) and if Stein has managed to get decent numbers anywhere (votes that might otherwise go for Obama).