Third Party Presidential Candidates

Harry Browne
Libertarian Party

Ralph Nader
Green Party

Howard Phillips
Constitution Party
(U.S. Taxpayers)

John Hagelin
Natural Law Party

John Hagelin/Pat Buchanan
Reform Party

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Outside the Mainstream
(August 10,2000)

Seems like you can't open a newspaper or turn on the radio or TV without seeing or hearing Al Gore or George W. Bush these days. And chances are that's the way it will stay until well after the presidential election in November.

But if you listen carefully, you might hear some alternative voices in the background. Third party candidates, "shadow convention" delegates and protesters are having their say outside the spotlight.

Two's Company. Three's a Crowd.

When the Republican Party's candidate, Abe Lincoln, won the presidency in 1860, his was a minor party.

Now, of course, it's one of our two main parties. But there are and have been many "third parties". Anti-Masons, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, Prohibitionists, Populists, Socialists, Communists, States' Righters and Libertarians-- they've all nominated candidates for president in the past.

America currently has five nationally organized third parties: Reform, Libertarian, Green, Constitution (formerly the U.S. Taxpayers), and Natural Law. Each of these five parties has received 100,000 votes or more for at least one of its candidates in the past 20 years. (No other currently existing third party in America has done so.)

Technically, there's nothing to stop a third party from becoming a major party.

However, the structure of the U.S. electoral system is stacked against third parties-- we'll get to that later.

Why Try?

History shows third parties have had-- and continue to have-- significant effects on the political system, even when their candidates don't win elections.

Mainstream politicians worry third party candidates will drain votes from major party candidates and alter the outcome of elections. So they listen to, bargain with and even fear third parties.

Third parties have often succeeded in bringing specific issues into the public spotlight. Slavery, homesteading, income taxes, prohibition, the national debt and term limits have all been championed by third parties.

These parties have also been a crucial factor in a number of elections. In 1856 the Republicans, then a minor party, got one-third of the popular vote and 11 states; four years later, they elected Abraham Lincoln.

When Theodore Roosevelt ran in 1912 as the Bull Moose Party's candidate, he got 88 electoral votes and took enough votes from William Taft so that he lost to Woodrow Wilson. George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1992 and '96 all won a significant share of the popular vote.

"An Avenue to Tyranny"

There's no mention of political parties in the constitution. In fact, the founding fathers were highly suspicious of political parties.

Alexander Hamilton called them "an avenue to tyranny."

But a two-party system quickly formed around the conflicting views of Hamilton, who wanted a strong federal government, and Jefferson, who wanted more power for the states.

Other parties came and went, but the Republican and Democratic parties eventually became the two dominant parties.

The Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, is the oldest of the five nationally organized third parties.

In l984, the first U.S. Green organizing meetings were convened. The first Green Party candidate appeared on the ballot in 1986.

The U.S. Taxpayers Party was formed in 1990. Last September it changed its name to the Constitution Party. The Natural Law Party was founded in 1992, and the Reform Party in 1995.

The Reform Party

The Reform Party can claim dominance in a few recent elections. In the 1996 presidential campaign, Ross Perot spent more money and received more votes (8.39 percent) than all other third party candidates combined.

The Reform Party is the only third party to have elected a governor: former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. He later became an independent after fighting with the leaders of the party.

In 1998 the Reform Party became the first third party since 1914 to receive more than 1 million votes for all of its governor candidates combined. (Over half of those votes were for Jesse Ventura.)

Look at it this way: Perot's 9 percent share of the popular vote in our last election matched the number of votes by which Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton.

So Why Don't They Take Off?

There are several institutional reasons a third party would have a difficult time catching up with the Republican or Democratic Party.

The party leadership would have to spend a great deal of time and money wading through the paperwork and requirements for nominating candidates and establishing itself. For example, presidential candidates must satisfy 50 different sets of ballot requirements.

To win, a presidential candidate would have to do very well in several big states. That's because our "Electoral College" system of tallying up votes cast for presidential candidates is a "winner-take-all system". (Click here for more on this complicated system.)

In other words-- whoever gets the most popular votes in a state gets every single state "elector" from that state. If you did well but didn't quite win in a state, you'd get zero "electors". All the popular votes you'd won would be for nothing.

And there's far less public funding or media exposure for third parties.

Five is the Magic Number

But there's nothing to keep a party from trying.

And, if any third party candidate wins 5 percent of the nationwide vote in November, his or her party will be guaranteed federal funding for its next presidential campaign.

It's a goal worth working towards for parties with a lot to say, but not much money to help them say it.

In the Shadow of the Giants

Besides third parties, "shadow conventions" are being held this year.

The organizers of "Shadow Conventions 2000" say they'll counter the conventional by focusing on issues that the major parties just won't touch.

The shadow conventions parallel the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, taking place at the same time and in the same cities as the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Each shadow convention kicks off with a Sunday session laying out themes. These kick-off sessions are followed by successive days of general sessions on three linked issue areas the organizers say are ignored by the party conventions. Here are the three issues in their own words: "the predominance of money politics and consequent need for campaign finance reform, growing economic inequality and the persistence of poverty in the midst of a seeming long boom, and the dangerously failed war on drugs."

On the concluding day of each convention, planning sessions on community service are held.

Taking it to the Streets

And last but not least, there are the voices of those who aren't necessarily members of a mainstream or third party or delegates at the shadow conventions.

Some of the same protesters who disrupted last year's meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle and overshadowed a World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington earlier this year, are "attending" both the Republican convention in Philadelphia and the Democrats in Los Angeles.

The protesters, a loosely organized coalition of varied interest groups, have a wide agenda which includes opposition to global trade agreements and the power of multinational companies, defense of the environment, promoting women's rights in the industrialized and developing world and promoting workers' rights to unionize.

What do you think -- Would you vote for a third party candidate (even if you knew they couldn't win)? Do you like the idea of a shadow convention? Do you think the protests make a difference?