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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.”

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

12 Comments on Third Party Candidates’ Mission Impossible

  • K.O on 10.23.2012 at 11:04 am

    Honestly I don’t think I would have known about this 3rd party debate if this article hadn’t highlighted it. Even though none of the options have any chance of winning it’ll be interesting to watch and compare. I’m sure at least one of the candidates will have a significant effect on the election through vote siphoning.

    • djk on 10.23.2012 at 5:45 pm

      It will be interesting conversation and comparison! Throughout the 3 RomBama debates, some third party candidates and supporting media outlets have made use of social media tools or streaming broadcasts to do live time commentary and live time responses to the same questions posed to Romney and Obama. For me, the discussion between the third party candidates has been more interesting, engaging, and productive than that of the mainstream debates.

    • Charli Stubbs on 07.28.2016 at 4:50 pm

      I’ve been an independent for over 20 years. I started out as a Republican, got disgusted and became a Democrat. Then they were taken over by the far left wing and I became an independent.

      I think American deserve MORE choices and this 2 party system is exactly what our founders warned us about.

      If you type in the word Independent or 3rd party, you’ll find a wealth of information about Independents and 3rd parties. Most Americans don’t know there are over 130 parties in the USA. Many Americans believe that they are not allowed to vote for anyone other then Democrats or Republicans. And both parties would rather keep it that way.

      Neither Clinton or Trump are fit to lead our nation. The stench from both candidates is so bad, most voters say they won’t vote. One man, who was in his 80’s and who I was talking to in the grocery store, said in other elections he’d hold his nose and vote for the lesser of 2 evils, but this time he said that’s impossible.

      Independents now make up the majority of voters (43% vs {D 30% or R 26%}) yet the media has completely missed this revolution. You have to wonder why. We have the numbers to choose the president, if we can find a candidate and agree to vote for him. Of course then we’ll have the hurdle of the electoral college.

      I’m afraid if we don’t get someone other then Clinton or Trump in, our country won’t survive. We’ve already had 2 bad presidents in a row ad I don’t think we can survive a 3rd. Thankfully I didn’t vote for Bush or Trump.

  • Ari Stern on 10.23.2012 at 11:38 am

    I’m very pleased to see this article. A constant source of frustration for me this past month has been the Commission on Presidential debates not allowing Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the debate. Gary Johnson is on the ballot in 47 states. Jill Stein is on the ballot for 85% of voters. Jill Stein has also qualified for federal public funds for her campaign. Our laws have declared these candidates viable options for President. Their opinions should be given equal time in the debates. Elections are a time to discuss the future direction of America. It shouldn’t be this limited.

    No debate will seem nationally relevant if the Democrats and Republicans don’t attend. But why would the big parties choose to attend a debate that will give attention to another competitor? Thus the CPD’s debates, which restrict third parties are the only ones that get national attention. The CPD’s requirements must be diminished.

    A follow up: Yesterday Jill Stein filed a law suit against the CPD in Florida “claiming that they have deprived Jill Stein of her constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and free speech, as well as her statutorily protected civil rights.”

    • djk on 10.23.2012 at 5:38 pm

      Nice update on Jill Stein, Ari. That claim statement seems right on point. If you’ve got a good article about it, please post a link here.

      I hear you on the frustration of watching Johnson, Stein, and other third party candidates get shut out of the CPD debates. The upside to the whole situation in my eyes is that there was a significant amount of press generated that called into question the legitimacy of the CPD, about Johnson’s lawsuits, as well as the campaigns of the leading 4 third party candidates. More so than in recent election years past it seems.

      It is an interesting note that the campaigns of these candidates are as much about the fight for Constitutional rights and truly democratic election process the country was founded on as they are about running for that office because they truly aspire to it and believe they are the best person for the job.

      I honestly think the CPD (and perhaps other unjust barriers to third parties and their candidates) can be ousted as the candidates, parties, and supporters continue to ban together in opposition, or piggyback their individual efforts as Stein and Johnson are doing now, and push until the walls comes down.

  • Bryan on 10.23.2012 at 1:34 pm

    It’s really unfortunate that third party candidates don’t get more attention in both national and local elections. Third party candidates seem to more closely match the views of the diverse American political spectrum. Too many people settle for a major party because they aren’t aware of the options that might reflect their views more accurately. People constantly complain that they are tired of Democrats and Republicans not working together, and not getting anything done in Washington. Hey, here’s an idea: don’t elect Democrats or Republicans! Until 3rd parties are brought into the fold, it’s going to be the same story.

  • Beloved Justice on 10.23.2012 at 4:06 pm

    Regardless of whether or not you’ve decided which presidential candidate you will vote for on Nov. 6, what party you align with, or how you feel about parties you don’t align with, I hope people will tune into these final 2 presidential debates between “third party” candidates, if only for the sake of being an informed voter, and supporting the kind of open inclusive debate that has been missing from our elections and needed in a truly democratic election process.

    I, for one, am excited because the conversation I’ve heard among third party candidates this election has been far more fruitful and interesting than the CPD debates.

  • zadoc on 10.24.2012 at 2:08 am

    With Johnson being the most experienced, I think he won. What does everyone think?

    POLL: Who won the Free and Equal debate?
    Vote here: http://bit.ly/3rdparty2012

    • David Keefe on 10.24.2012 at 10:43 am

      Johnson undoubtedly had the most support, and I’d bet that he advances to next week’s debate. However, I feel like his performance was as commendable as the other 3, perhaps a bit more energetic and impassioned. I don’t know about being the most experienced (although he certainly IS experienced and has probably the best track record of any presidential candidate in the field).

      An unexpected takeaway was how much I enjoyed Virgil Goode. I disagree with him on some major points, so he wouldn’t get my vote, but he was a very likable gentleman, and respectfully stood up for his views even when he knew they were unpopular in the room. A++ for him.

      A few things I absolutely loved about the debate:

      1. A broader spectrum of views. Goode and Johnson with differing right-wing perspectives; Anderson and Stein on the left, who pretty much agree on all issues, but have different approaches to addressing them.

      2. Actual productive discussion and debate about the best approach to our nation’s issues and future amongst adults. No bickering. If they disagreed they did so respectfully. And they also noted where they agreed with other candidates on the stage. Politicians from different parties working together – imagine that!

      One disappointment was no questions about climate change and how to address the looming environmental and economic crises it represents. However, given the focus of the second debate next Tuesday, I do believe the topic will be brought up then.

  • David Keefe on 10.24.2012 at 10:13 am

    If you watched the debate last night (or even if you didn’t), go vote for the two candidates you would like to appear in the next Free and Equal debate next Tuesday.


    The decision is being made by the public via instant runoff voting process. The two candidates with the most votes will debate next Tuesday, October 30th in Washington D.C.

    The instant runoff voting model is one being supported as a viable model for reform of the current “winner take all” Electoral College model.


  • Ryan on 10.25.2012 at 11:15 am

    The reason we have a two-party system is our electoral laws. By having a winner-takes-all system, we force people to coalesce into two groups, with everyone right of center going Republican and everyone left of center going Democrat. They have to create these large parties because in order to win, you need 51%. That’s why we’ve always had two parties, and always will, so long as this system is kept. Proportional representation, on the other hand, results in many parties, as you can get seats in the legislature by getting over a low threshold (~2%). This removes the incentive for what would be very different people creating large blocks in an effort to get that magic 51% of the vote.

  • Bob S on 10.29.2012 at 8:35 pm

    I am afraid the only way to change the “winner take all” model is to keep one of the main parties out of power for 12 to 16 years. As long as Dems and Republicans take turns at being in power every 4-8 years, the system is working “as designed” (i.e. to maintain status quo), and the two main parties are happy to stick with it.

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