Third-party candidates may play a much larger role in the presidential race this year than in past election seasons — especially if they can win a legal battle against the Federal Election Commission and get some significant airtime on television.
Republicans who can’t stomach Donald Trump are rallying around calls to run an independent candidate against him, and one in four Bernie Sanders supporters polled last month said they would not vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination. The country’s largest third parties, the Greens and Libertarians, are betting that plenty of disgruntled voters can be peeled away from the major parties come November.
“This is the best election year ever because we are seeing a very possible crackup at the Republican convention and we are seeing a lot of frustration and disappointment regarding the Democratic Party convention too,” said Scott McLarty, a spokesman for the Green Party. “And the Sanders campaign has … just shown everybody that the Democratic Party’s process is kind of rigged.”
Most voters are not excited about their current presidential options. Polls show that only 36 percent of the country has a favorable view of Trump, who is currently cleaving the GOP establishment in two without a hint of remorse. Hillary Clinton is doing only slightly better at 42 percent.
Only Bernie Sanders has a favorability rating above 50 percent, but his campaign has been unable to usurp the entrenched powers in the Democratic Party and is largely seen as an exercise in movement building at this point.
McLarty said some Sanders supporters are already see the Green Party as a “plan B” to falling in line behind Clinton or simply burning out after the convention. Nicholas Sarwark, the chairman of the Libertarian Party, which supports some of the same political ideas that propelled Ron Paul’s fiery campaign in 2012, said Trump is fueling an “astounding” exodus from the GOP.
“We’ve been sort of noodling around with the idea of giving the gentleman from New York an award for the most recruitment for the Libertarian Party this year, because he has helped a lot of people find their correct political home,” Sarwark said. In the days after Trump sealed the Republican nomination, he added, the number of voters seeking membership in the party each day doubled or even tripled.
Media Coverage and Legal Challenges
Whether widespread cynicism will motivate voters to support third-party long shots or simply drive down turnout may largely depend on how much exposure the alternative candidates get. Front-runners like Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarians John McAfee and Gary Johnson are enjoying some media coverage and appearances on network TV, but it’s nothing like the daily obsession over Clinton, Sanders and especially Trump, who regularly generates headlines by offending pretty much everyone besides guaranteed Republican primary voters.
It’s clear that television exposure is one key to electoral success; Trump’s made-for-TV personality propelled him to the top of a major party. Thus, the Greens and Libertarians have ramped up legal efforts to force the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to require the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the nonprofit that sponsors the debates, to include their candidates during prime-time programming.
McLarty said the debates are the biggest post-convention events and the best way for alternative parties to not only raise their candidates’ profiles, but also to get their political messages out to a much larger audience (a major reason why third parties run presidential candidates in the first place). Sarwark said it all comes down to “name recognition.”
“The Democrats and Republicans realize how much debate exposure is worth,” Sarwark said. “This is essentially a multibillion-dollar campaign contribution to the Republican and Democratic parties, and that’s the argument that we are making in the lawsuit.”
The lawsuit, filed last year on behalf of the Greens, the Libertarians and the multimillionaire political financier Peter Ackerman, alleges that the CPD is run by Democratic and Republican political insiders who work to shield the major candidates from third-party spoilers. Under FEC rules, the plaintiffs argue, the debate sponsors cannot accept contributions from corporate sponsors to finance their activities unless they are “nonpartisan,” which is not the same as “bipartisan.”
Candidates are only eligible to participate in the debates if they are polling at 15 percent or higher, which is nearly impossible to achieve for third-party candidates who do not enjoy all the free airtime given to Democrats and Republicans, according to the plaintiffs. Sarwark said it’s a “chicken and egg” type of situation.
“The way the Commission on Presidential Debates is set up, it’s former chairs of the two old parties getting together to set rules specifically to make sure that it’s a giant campaign commercial … and keep the Libertarian off the stage,” Sarwark said.
The FEC recently filed a motion claiming that its standard for taking action is “highly deferential” and the plaintiffs did not supply enough evidence for a rule change, an argument that Sarwark called “shady.” He pointed to Ross Perot, who is the only third-party candidate to appear on a major televised debate, back in 1992. Perot’s polling numbers skyrocketed afterward, and some Republicans still blame him for drawing supporters away from George H. W. Bush and handing the election to Bill Clinton.
“Every since the Perot debate, and the sort of breakout that he had, they have never wanted that to happen again,” Sarwark said. “So, it doesn’t.”
The FEC has asked a federal judge in California to dismiss the case, and it’s unclear if it will be resolved before the televised debates. Another separate legal challenge on behalf of the Greens and Libertarians has been filed against the CPD itself, alleging that the group is violating anti-trust laws by boxing out political alternatives.
The Third-Party Threat
The major parties have reasons to be worried this year, especially the fracturing Republicans. Johnson or McAfee could pose a real threat to Trump — they are both successful but controversial businessmen who could attract young and socially liberal Republicans away from a candidate who rails against free trade agreements and spouts hate speech. Johnson served two terms as governor of New Mexico and runs a medical cannabis firm, while McAfee is a tech entrepreneur who has cultivated a “bad boy” image since his highly publicized run-in with authorities in Belize and Guatemala in 2012.
Green Party front-runner Jill Stein has made fewer headlines than the Libertarians, but her party has been busy challenging laws that make it difficult for third parties to get on the ballot in several states, and could still attract Sanders supporters with strong opinions on environmental issues and health care.
“The Greens have reached out to the Sanders campaign, to see how they might work together, but he has apparently not responded,” said Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News. “But the Greens are increasing in capacity — they did qualify for primary season matching funds this year. They haven’t seen the same increase in media coverage as the Libertarians yet, perhaps partly because Sanders is still campaigning.”
McLarty said it appears clear that Sanders will not stage an independent campaign and will endorse Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination. However, McLarty emphasized that the movement Sanders inspired will continue, and its first challenge to the dominant political system should be to demand that a Green Party candidate is included in the presidential debates.
“You know, if you’re in the movement for single-payer universal health care, which Bernie very strongly supports, as the Green Party does too … [and then] to say, ‘well, we are not going to push for the Green Party candidate to get into the debate because we want Hillary, the lesser evil, to get elected’ … then you are basically silencing your own point of view,” McLarty said. “And I don’t see any movement having any success if it participates in its own silence.”
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