In the United States, where the political scene has long been dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties, votes for a third party are considered ‘wasted’ or ‘protest’ votes. In an election season distinguished by the popularity of anti-establishment candidates, has the time come for a viable third party movement in the US?
A Comment by Kris Best
A Third Party Vote is a Wasted Vote
If you want to vote for the Green Party candidate in a US presidential election, you may as well skip the middle step and cast your ballot directly in the trash bin. Over the last two centuries of American politics, the voting public has held this to be a simple fact of politics: although third party candidates occasionally crop up in municipal and state governments, third party candidates for president have won votes in the electoral college only ten times since 1788. The last time it happened was more than 50 years ago, in 1968. No wonder the American public has long considered a third party vote to be a wasted vote.
In the US, the institution of the electoral college, the first-past-the-post/winner-takes-all voting system and even the rules determining access to televised debates form serious obstacles for the viability of a third party candidate. This is why third party voting – when not considered outright naïve – has long served only supplementary purposes to the main show. ‘Protest voting’, for example, has been a staple of American politics for decades. It describes the phenomenon of voting for a third party not out of any hope that the candidate will win, but as an act of expressing frustration with the two dominant parties. Occasionally, if the third party reaches enough support to threaten the mainstream parties, it can force the mainstream candidates closer to its point of view. Until recently, third parties in American politics could hardly hope for more than that.
When Protest Voting Becomes Voting
The course of the 2016 election has seen an unprecedented rise in the popularity of anti-establishment candidates, although much of the drama has still played out within the two-party system. Bernie Sanders was the longest-serving independent Member of Congress in US history before choosing to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Even Donald Trump is only marginally attached to the Republican Party; during the first primary debate back in 2015, he caused a stir by refusing to rule out the possibility of campaigning for the presidency as an independent candidate if he didn’t receive the Republican nomination.
When two of the key candidates in the presidential race can be so tenuously affiliated with the parties they run under, could this be a sign that a viable third party presidential candidate is no longer such an unthinkable concept?
The two largest third parties on either side of the political spectrum – the Green Party on the left and the Libertarian Party on the right – have been quick to try to capitalise on this exceptional election season. The Green Party presidential candidate, Jill Stein, was already on scene at the Democratic National Convention to sweep up disappointed “Bernie or Bust” delegates. The Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, received significant media attention after promoting himself to disillusioned Republicans as a more conservative and rational alternative to Trump, and has seen his poll numbers rise over the summer in the wake of the Trump campaign’s many controversies. But it remains difficult to say whether this is just the result of one bizarre election season or the emergence of a more general trend toward multi-party politics in the United States.
The Day for Third Parties Has Not yet Come
As November approaches, it has become clear that this election season will not see the surprise insurgence of either Stein or Johnson as a dark horse candidate. Stein is polling around 3% and Johnson is polling around 8%; neither meet the 15% threshold to participate in the televised presidential debates. Johnson’s unpreparedness and recent political gaffes – notably, asking his MSNBC interviewer what “Aleppo” was – make it unlikely that these numbers will move much further. The mainstream political parties are more or less rallying behind their respective nominees. Once again, the 2016 presidential election will go to a Democrat or Republican.
At the same time, this election has directed much attention to independent and third party candidates. Anti-establishment candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump with questionable links to the mainstream parties were able to progress further than expected, and even third party candidates like Gary Johnson have been taken seriously by the press. Popular disillusionment with the two-party system clearly runs deep, and given the public divisiveness of both candidates still in the race, these sentiments are unlikely to change, regardless of the victor.
However, whether third parties are able to actually profit from this disillusionment will depend on their ability to organise and propose meaningful-yet-workable alternatives over the next four years. In July 2016, an expletive-filled rant from the popular American columnist Dan Savage in a Seattle newspaper went viral online, calling for third parties to build up their legitimacy by showing results at the municipal and state levels before attempting to run a viable presidential campaign. The rant appeared to strike a chord with Americans longing for a political alternative that they could actually believe in – a strong third party that they could support not with a wasted vote or a protest vote, but just a simple vote.
Consequently, if the third parties manage to achieve that over the next four years, we may see a very different election season in 2020.
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