Tonight will see the last US presidential debate. If it has been ignored by the news, that's because neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama are taking part.
The Commission on Presidential Debates stipulates that candidates must consistently be polling at least 15 per cent to take part, meaning that no other candidates were allowed to challenge Romney and Obama. This, despite a clear majority of Americans saying they would like the debates to be more open. Third party candidates do however have the chance to debate each other – tonight will be the second Free and Equal Elections Foundation debate, with the four candidates who participated in the first whittled down to two by public vote.
Exclusion from the debates isn’t the only problem for third parties. Only Romney and Obama have even been able to secure enough signatures to get onto the presidential ballot in every state, while the first-past-the-post system used for Presidential and Congressional elections also works against third party candidates.
But the most fundamental problem third parties have is financial. What Mark Hanna, credited with creating the modern political campaign, said in 1898 is truer today than ever before: “ There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”
In this presidential election, Romney and Obama, including their parties and the Super PACs (political action committees) that support them, have spent almost $1 billion each. Running for Congress and the Senate isn’t cheap either. In 2010, the average winning House candidate spent $1.4 million on his campaign; the average victorious Senate candidate spent $10 million. It is no wonder that, of the 535 members in both houses of Congress today, only two aren’t members of either the Democrats or Republicans, nor that Ron Perot, who got a higher share of the vote than any third party candidate since 1912, used personal millions to fund his 1992 campaign.
With all the ads they spend denouncing one another, sometimes it seems that all they can agree on is that there is a “clear choice” between their policies. Yet in many areas, there’s not really a choice at all. The two participants in tonight’s debate, the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, have very different economic views. But on issues like the need to reduce US defence spending, the failure of the War on Drugs, and the erosion of US civil liberties since 9/11, they are in almost complete agreement – and total opposition to the standard Democrat-Republican positions. And then there is climate change, mentioned more in Jill Stein’s opening statement in the first debate than in six hours of presidential and vice-presidential debates.
Even if voters listen and like what they hear, the problem of getting admirers to cast ballots without fearing wasting their votes is acute. This was even a problem for Perot in 1992: one study claimed that he would have received more votes than Bill Clinton or George Bush Sr had voters thought he could win. For many on the political left, the nightmare of votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000 helping allow George Bush to win the White House means they will not countenance voting for an alternative to Obama, however much they may agree with the candidate.
Notwithstanding the multifarious problems faced by third party candidates, the prospect of a ‘spoiler’ candidate in 2012 should not be discounted. The Libertarian Party’s Johnson, a former Republican Governor of New Mexico, is most likely to fill that role. His pledge to continue “Ron Paul’s Revolution” holds appeal for a section of normal Republican voters; recent polls in Nevada and Virginia have suggested he is close to polling 5% in those states. Johnson is also relatively strong in Colorado, although his support for an election-day ballot initiative that would legalise marijuana could take young votes here away from Obama. In Virginia, the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode poses another unwelcome challenge to Romney, repeatedly lambasting his flip-flopping. Although Goode is only polling around 2% in Virginia that is enough for him to declare that the Republicans are “scared” of him. And given the closeness of the race in Virginia, perhaps they should be.
Third party candidates are frequently mocked, but they aren’t wasting their time. As well as highlighting issues Romney and Obama have chosen to ignore, they have something tangible to aim for. According to some opinion polls, Johnson’s stated goal of earning 5% of the popular vote, which would qualify the Libertarian Party to receive federal matching funds at the next presidential election, might be attainable.
Indicative of the struggle for those seeking to break the Democrat-Republic duopoly on American politics, most opinion polls don’t even give people the option of choosing a third part - but Election Day ballots will provide such a choice. After all that Obama and Romney have spent battering each other, it would be ironic if the opponents they have so ignored come to deny one of them the presidency.