With record-high negative sentiment towards the two major-party candidates, there has been a surge of interest in alternative voting options. While many voters have likely made the decision to abstain from voting this November, others have begun to explore third-party options. Whether Jill Stein of the Green Party or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, third-party candidates have received more attention this election cycle than in any since 1992. In discussion of third party candidates, we can examine three things: the benefits of increased exposure for third parties, how those parties have changed over time, and how they may affect the future of American democracy.
Though America’s founding fathers were contemptuous of political parties, they ultimately accepted them as a necessary component of democracy. Since then, there has been in place a political system dominated by just two parties. Thus, one might ask what benefits, if any, third parties provide this country. The most common answer is that third parties offer a way for voters to show their interest in a specific issue or small, limited set of issues. Oftentimes, we see a third-party candidate bring neglected issues into the spotlight, in doing so inducing a major party to adopt that platform to gain voters. We saw this with Ross Perot’s heavy focus on the national debt in 1992. But, when the major parties take up an issue, the third parties that first highlighted it are no longer needed and have a harder time attracting supporters. As famed political scientist Richard Hofstadter once observed, “Third parties are like bees; once they sting, they die.”
However, what we see in this election cycle is fundamentally different. Both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein offer voters a comprehensive platform with a focus not just on influencing major parties’ positions but also on the possibility of actually controlling the White House. We see many voters, who are decidedly against supporting either of the major party nominees this year, instead viewing third-party candidates as viable options for president. Both the Libertarian and Green parties have launched full-scale efforts this election cycle to become lasting, influential parties. Both have presented comprehensive policy proposals that range from social and economic issues to foreign affairs, immigration and more. Third party candidates are offering expanded choices to voters: the fact that the Libertarian Party will be on the ballot in all 50 states and in Washington, D.C. demonstrates the additional options voters will have. These comprehensive platforms and the inclusion of third parties on many ballots stands in contrast to the traditional view of third parties as merely vehicles for forcing a specific issue into the headlines, with the ultimate aim of pressuring the major parties to adopt their desired policy stance. While some of the momentum enjoyed by the Libertarian and Green parties this election cycle has recently dissipated, culminating in both candidates’ failures to fulfill the necessary criteria for inclusion in the debates, the viability of their campaigns greatly exceeds that of most third-party campaigns throughout our nation’s history.
Though down from his peak of support, which, according to the Real Clear Politics (RCP) poll average, reached over 9 percent, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson is still getting support from about 7.4 percent of likely voters nationwide. His popularity among millennials is particularly noteworthy, as it indicates possible uncertainty for the future of the two-party system. As millennials continue to become more influential in the political world, it is plausible that we could see a significant change in the political status quo. The former governor of New Mexico, Mr. Johnson owes much of his appeal to the unique combination of policy stances that he offers to voters. A synoptic analysis of the Libertarian Party platform and Governor Johnson’s website paints a clear picture: a platform heavy on social inclusivity, while at the same time conservative on economic issues. His socially inclusive policies include support for gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, the legalization of marijuana, criminal justice reform, and other progressive causes commonly associated with the Democratic Party . On a similar note, Governor Johnson has used his campaign as a platform to speak out against Wall Street bailouts and the lack of term limits in Congress.
While aligning quite well with Democrats on social issues, Governor Johnson largely agrees with Republicans regarding economic policy. During the Libertarian Party Town Hall on CNN this summer, Governor Johnson talked at length about his promise to veto any bill that proposes an increase in deficit spending. His platform indicates a strong focus the national debt and budget deficit. He often cites his performance during his two terms as Governor of New Mexico, when he cut taxes 14 times and simultaneously reduced wasteful spending, leaving the state with a billion dollar surplus. His inclusion in the election cycle this year offers voters a legitimate alternative option with well-developed plans for office.
Much like Gary Johnson, Jill Stein of the Green Party offers voters a unique set of stances that is distinct from that of either major party. While Dr. Stein’s support appears to be smallelower than that of Governor Johnson, with an RCP average of about 2.6 percent, her campaign also offers voters an viable alternative candidate for president. The Green Party has historically focused on environmental issues, but, recently, there has been a transition from an agenda with localized interest to a more extensive one. Dr. Stein’s 2016 bid for the White House is the culmination of this transition. Far from just appealing to a niche of environmentalists, Dr. Stein has been a powerful voice for many issues, including anti-poverty programs, single-payer health insurance, diplomatic international relations, and domestic human rights, among other things. Dr. Stein’s “Power to the People Plan” provides voters with a thorough account of the candidate’s plans and objectives. She has proposed strategies for poverty alleviation, job creation, upholding basic healthcare rights, increasing the federal minimum wage, and a foreign policy agenda centered on diplomacy and international law. Her candidacy is far from that of the traditional, highly-localized third-party candidate, and a large step forward in offering increased choice to voters.
It is certainly improbable that either Governor Johnson or Dr. Stein will be in the White House come January; even so, they have set a strong precedent for future third-party candidates running not just to “sting” major parties, but to win in their own right. The important takeaway of third-party performance in this election cycle is that they are beginning to become legitimate options for voters, rather than being absorbed by the Democrat and Republican Parties because they no longer represent a single issue. While this is not an overnight process, the wheels are now in motion. With several third parties developing a strong sense of how to legitimize themselves, and independent forces in the political world—such as millennials increasingly supporting third party candidates—becoming more powerful, there is a growing possibility that we may soon see the collapse of our current two-party system.