By Gavin Pugh | Digital Managing Editor
This election season left many voters feeling alienated by their preferred parties’ candidates. While some people chose not to vote, others found third-party candidates much more preferable to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Gary Johnson (L-NM), Jill Stein (G-IL) and Evan McMullin (I-UT) were the top three contenders running as third-party candidates.
Though third-party candidates are capable of gaining attention during the presidential election, the hurdles they have to overcome to even win one state are seemingly insurmountable: They have to meet stringent paperwork deadlines and run a campaign, all under a limited budget.
There have been candidates in the past who have fared well, particularly Ross Perot in 1992. Garnering 19 percent of the popular vote, Perot ran as an independent against then-Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and incumbent George H.W. Bush. Though Perot pulled large numbers due to his appeal to the Populist crowd, he still didn’t win a single electoral vote.
Dr. Patrick Flavin, an associate professor in the political science department, says our government is not set up for third-party candidates to win major offices.
“Simply, the way that we elect our leaders in this country lends itself to large parties,” Flavin said.
Rather than make a bid for the White House and hope their campaign goes viral, Flavin suggests third-party candidates focus on gaining support during the offseason.
“Third parties need to invest in the infrastructure that it takes to actually be a long- lasting party from election to election,” Flavin said.
And while those necessary investments could take decades until the party notices any gain in support, their registrants remain hopeful.
“I see Democrats and Republicans who care about the same things but want to do it in a different way,” said Bethesda, Md., sophomore Nathan Cooper, a self-proclaimed Libertarian.
Having spent time in the District of Columbia, Cooper says he was influenced by “both sides of the political spectrum,” hence his preference for the Libertarian party. The party defines itself as advocating for “freedom in economic matters” while also being “socially inclusive.”
“I think it’s possible for a third party to become the majority,” Cooper said.
Whether or not the Libertarian party would be the one to rise is a different question – Johnson’s campaign only gathered 3 percent of the popular vote. While a single candidate’s campaign isn’t entirely representative of the success of their party as a whole, an article by FiveThirtyEight.com provides insight as to why the Libertarians struggle to gain popularity.
“Hard-core partisans who vote in presidential primaries are much more likely to take consistently liberal or conservative positions than the broader American population,” Nate Silver wrote in the article.
But just because Libertarian’s might struggle to gain the ground support they need to become a more competitive party, that doesn’t mean the voices of non-Democrats or non-Republicans go unheard.
Bernie Sanders’ tenure as Vermont’s senator has been without any political affiliation whatsoever, yet his race for the Democratic nomination for president received massive support, particularly from millennial voters. In a Gallup survey, 55 percent of millennials had favorable opinions of Sanders, compared to just 38 and 22 percent for Clinton and Trump, respectively. That a candidate like Sanders gained such support without previous political affiliation reveals that aligning oneself with one of the two popular parties may be the only road to success, presently.
“One might expect that Bernie Sanders supporters would be far more liberal than Hillary Clinton supporters because Bernie Sanders as a candidate was far more liberal than Hillary Clinton,” Flavin said. “Polling showed that wasn’t the case. Bernie supporters had roughly the same policy opinions in terms of how liberal they were as Clinton supporters.
“I don’t think it was necessarily driven by policy, but more so by a way to identify with something different – something new. Certainly, Bernie Sanders speaks in more grandiose terms and is more exciting to go listen to.”
Such was the case for President-elect Donald Trump. Many high-profile Republicans seen as the face of the party, such as Paul Ryan and John McCain, took issue with their then-candidate. Had he run his campaign as an independent, like Perot, the 2016 election might have looked very different.
“[Trump] certainly has an intense following,” Flavin said. “But then [having been] a major party’s nominee, he also gets the millions of people who are Republican who are going to tend to vote for their party’s nominee, no matter who it is. So Donald Trump is benefiting from our two-party system.”
The rise of outsider-candidates for the presidency this election cycle indicates a changing political climate. Whether it be Sander’s campaign, Trump’s winning the election or the trending hashtag “#letgarydebate” to include Johnson in the presidential debates, voters are voicing a desire for something new.