Third Party Candidates’ Mission Impossible
How the deck is stacked against them
What do Virgil Goode, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Rocky Anderson have in common? Two things: they’re all running for president, and most people have never heard of them.
These four (and at least a dozen others) are third party candidates who have received little or no national media attention, but do have their names on ballots—with Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, on those of all but two states. The third party candidates in this year’s election have not had the chance to verbally slug it out with President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. They will, however, hold their own third-party slugfest tonight, in an event hosted by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation at 9 p.m. on Ora TV. Radio talk show host Larry King will moderate, and Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, Stein, of the Green Party, Goode, of the Constitution Party, and Anderson, of the Justice Party, will present their platforms. Obama and Romney were also invited, but declined to participate.
Why is it so hard for third party strivers to get a podium in a presidential debate?
“The American electoral process is really rigged against third party candidates, despite the fact that the Constitution says absolutely nothing about political parties,” says Tobe Berkovitz, a College of Communication associate professor of advertising. “It is incredibly difficult for third parties to get organized, and once they are, to manage to get on the ballot.”
And if they do get their names on the ballot, says Bruce Schulman, a College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of the history department, they still have a long way to go. That’s because the United States has a “first past the post” electoral system, not a parliamentary system with proportional representation. “If you can’t win a near majority in any jurisdiction,” says Schulman, “you’re not going to actually have any of the things that make parties work, which is getting power, access to resources, and access to patronage.”
At least not at the same level as Republicans and Democrats, who, Thomas Whalen says, have the lion’s share of money, political connections, and the attention of major communication giants. “It’s very difficult if you are a third or a fourth party with limited financial means to compete,” says Whalen, a College of General Studies associate professor of social science. “Money talks in our society. It always has, and in politics especially.”
In fact, money talks louder than ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs the Federal Election Commission, which allows corporations and unions to spend a limitless amount of money to support or oppose political candidates. “Citizens was a game changer,” Whalen says. “I think that really is going to discourage grassroots efforts in the future, because the money is just going to overwhelm everything.”
Berkovitz has a different take. “If you have a sugar daddy or mommy, they could shower some serious money onto you,” he says. “What I find surprising is that in this age of social media and digital communication, no third party has been able to leverage that.”
Without fat bank accounts or deep-pocketed supporters to foot expensive campaign advertising, third party candidates convey their message to voters through (free) media coverage, social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and debates—the last being the hardest prize to win.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, a private nonprofit organization established in 1987 by Democratic and Republican party leaders, set the criteria candidates must meet to appear on national television. Candidates must be constitutionally eligible as a U.S. citizen and be at least 35 years old (one third party candidate, Peta Lindsay, of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, at 27, does not meet the age requirement), have ballot access in enough states “to have at least a mathematical chance” of securing an Electoral College majority, and have electoral support, meaning the candidate must receive at least 15 percent among five national public opinion polls. Johnson couldn’t clear this last hurdle before the first two debates and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the commission in the U.S. District Court of California. Since then, he claims to have garnered the required support, and on Friday he filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking permission to join last night’s final CPD-sponsored debate between Romney and Obama. Both cases are now moot.
“The bar is set so high by the debate commission that sometimes a candidate who might be considered a potential, legitimate candidate is denied access,” Berkovitz says. “Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“We have to set the threshold somewhere arbitrarily,” says Ryan Mulvey (LAW’13, GRS’13), copresident of the BU Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. If the commission allows one third-party candidate onstage, “how do we justify not lowering it for the next person?”
In 1992, H. Ross Perot, of the Reform Party, did make his way to a debate with Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, and the incumbent, President George H. W. Bush. “Perot really changed the dynamic of that race for the better,” Whalen says. “He drew Clinton out and he forced Bush out in a way that would not have happened had he retired quietly to the sidelines along with the rest of his party supporters.” And while Perot didn’t win the election, Whalen says, Clinton borrowed his opponent’s idea to balance the budget and lead the country into surplus.
Whalen points to the 1912 election and Theodore Roosevelt’s run as another example of a third party candidate who made significant waves in history. Splitting from the Republican Party and running against the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt formed the Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” Party and came in second, behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt’s progressive agenda set the stage for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. “Third parties can make a big difference,” Whalen says. “It might not seem so at the outset, but long term they can make a huge difference.”
The rise and fall of third parties reminds Schulman of a quote by historian Richard Hofstadter: “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.” Either one of the major parties will “swallow up and then imbibe” that party’s position, Schulman says, or a third party will “change the basis of competition between the two major parties.” Either way, the Democrats and Republicans remain the top contenders.
Schulman thinks parties have become less important in American politics. Around the 19th century, voters formed a third party if they felt the two major ones weren’t addressing their concerns. Now, he says, “people are much more likely to intervene through interest groups or social movements, business or labor, or occupational associations than they are through forming a third party.” Those groups then align with a political party to push their agenda.
Voters like Jason Andersen (ENG’14), president of the student group Liberty at BU, still value third party candidates. “I think you have a duty to vote for the person you most support, whether or not they have a chance of winning,” says Andersen, who plans to vote for Johnson. “You’re not going to change the political spectrum if you just keeping voting for the lesser of two evils.”
The Free and Equal Elections Foundation hosts a third party presidential debate tonight, Tuesday, October 23, at 9 p.m. among Libertarian Gary Johnson, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, and the Justice Party’s Rocky Anderson. Larry King moderates the debate, which will be streamed live on Ora TV, Russia Today, and the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, and broadcast live on television by Al Jazeera English.
A second debate between Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will take place on Monday, November 5, at 9 p.m., which will be streamed live on RT.com, and the Free and Equal Elections Foundation website, and televised by RT America where available.
Find more election year analysis and commentary by BU professors in the video series “Campaign 2012.”