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Election 2004
Politics and Economy:
Election 2004
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The Third Parties

Conventional assumptions about the electorate as polarized Republican and Democratic camps misses the trend of the last three presidential elections — third-party candidates are tipping the outcome of presidential elections.
— Lawrence R. Jacobs, director of the 2004 Elections Project for the Humphrey Institute

PBS's ONLINE NEWSHOUR reports that the United States is home to more than 54 political parties, 37 of which have had candidates run for President. Although only a handful of third-party candidates have received more than 10% of the vote in all the years since 1860, third parties are often thought to have a major influence on U.S. policy and political debate.

Third parties often raise issues that major-party presidential candidates neglect, sometimes leading to substantial change in the public dialogue. Ross Perot, running on a platform that advocated reducing the federal budget deficit, received 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 election. The fact that Perot's key issue has been an important question in almost every campaign since is seen as somewhat of a victory for the Reform Party, even though their candidate lost the election.

In 2000, what might have been seen as the next high point for third parties was marred by controversy. Ralph Nader gained more than two million votes as the Green Party candidate, but some Democrats blamed Nader for causing candidate Al Gore's defeat by attracting votes that might have otherwise gone to Gore. But it is rare that third parties garner enough votes to warrant this kind of complaint. More often, third parties struggle to raise the millions necessary to run a presidential campaign, and have a hard time getting a fraction of the media exposure the Republican and Democratic candidates receive. (Read about how third-party candidates are regularly excluded from the televised presidential debates.)

In the end, some voters who might support a third-party candidate's platform worry that their votes will be "wasted" on a candidate who is unlikely to win. Because of the way the United States electoral system works, only the candidate who wins the majority of popular votes in most states receives any electoral votes. (Learn more about the electoral college system.)

Despite these challenges, third parties continue to endorse candidates for the presidency. Each election year, dozens of people decide to run for the presidency. In October 2004, with the election less than a month away, Ballot Access News reports five third-party candidates will appear on a significant number of state ballots, an accomplishment in itself. Although there are few requirements for eligibility, a significant amount of paperwork is required to become a viable candidate. Each state has its own ballot laws, each one requiring that a party obtain a different number of signatures to get on that state's ballot. This is why third-party candidates are seldom listed on every state ballot.

THE WASHINGTON TIMES reported in September 2004 that third-party candidates in this election are as much or more of a threat to President George W. Bush than they are to his challenger John Kerry. Libertarian presidential hopeful Michael Badnarik told the TIMES, "We are playing to the conservatives who do not have a party to vote for. For example, Republicans have traditionally stood for smaller government, but this president has not adhered to that standard." Badnarik is currently on the ballot in 49 states. Find a state-by-state breakdown at Ballot Access News.

Learn about some of the third-party candidates and platforms playing a role in Election 2004.


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