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Unless you have $500m spare don't even try to run for President - no wonder third party candidates are failing

Voters glean what little information they know about candidates from thirty-second television commercials, which are very expensive to run, which is a catch-22 situation for third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein 

Bryan Cranston
Wednesday 02 November 2016 17:48 GMT
Gary Johnson is the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee
Gary Johnson is the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee (Getty)

With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, American voters are tasked with choosing between two of the most unpopular candidates ever chosen as major party presidential nominees. There are alternatives though, so what chance to third party candidates have on Election Day?

This year, there are three significant alternatives to the traditional Republican-Democratic two-party system.

The Libertarian Party is the country's third largest political party, but it has never elected a candidate to Congress, let alone the presidency. In fact, since it was founded in 1972, the Party's most successful presidential election was 1980, when they won 1.07 per cent of the vote. In 2012, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson led the party to their most successful election since 1980, when he won 1.03 per cent. This was more than double the Party's 2008 result.

On paper, the 2016 Libertarian ticket is an impressive one. Johnson is again the nominee, and his vice presidential running mate is former Massachusetts governor, William Weld.

US election night: Everything you need to know

One might think that two former Republican governors would present a viable alternative to disenchanted Republicans and conservative Democrats, so why has their campaign not captured voters' attention?

Public polling has the Libertarian ticket reaching dizzying heights of 9 per cent, but for Johnson to improve on his near-record 2012 result, he would need to run a near-perfect campaign. It has been anything but.

Both men are hardly exciting or engaging, and when they have managed to capture media attention, it has been for the wrong reasons.

For example, in early September when Johnson was asked on live television how he would respond to the escalating crisis in Aleppo (Syria), he asked, "What is Aleppo?"

Despite what the polls say, it is hard to see the Libertarian Party exceeding their previous result. It is far more likely that their Election Day vote will shift closer to their party's average of 0.44 per cent.

The Green Party is even more lost in the political wilderness.

Considering how Bernie Sanders captured the attention and imagination of the left-wing of the Democratic party during the Democratic primary, one might have thought that disenchanted Democratic voters would look for an anti-Clinton, left alternative.

Like the Libertarian Party, the Greens have again selected their 2012 nominee, Jill Stein, as their 2016 presidential standard-bearer.

Since the Greens first presidential election in 1996, their electoral high-water mark was Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign, where he won 2.74 per cent, and famously helped deny Al Gore a win in Florida, and thus the presidency.

2000 though was an anathema, and excluding that result, the Green Party averages 0.32 per cent of the presidential vote.

A further similarity to Johnson is that Stein has also failed to capture public attention - and the Sanders vote - and will not be a factor on Election Day, at all.

The only third-party candidate who looks likely to make an impact on Election Day is Republican-turned-independent Evan McMullin.

McMullin is polling well, very well, with polling averages in the mid-to-high 20s, and often ahead of Clinton, and narrowly behind Trump. But this polling is taking place in a single state, Utah, where McMullin has gone all-in. He has all-but limited his campaign to a single state, and is aiming to become the first third-party candidate to win a state since 1968.

Utah is consistently one of the most Republican states in the country, yet Trump has successfully angered the its conservative 'family-values' Mormon voters. Unlike the Libertarian and Green parties, McMullin appears to have captured the attention of Utah voters, and is in a competitive race to win the state.

With almost all of McMullin's support coming from disenchanted Republican voters, this decrease in Trump's vote has now brought Clinton into competitive consideration in the state. Despite this, it is difficult to imagine that Clinton could win Utah, so the contest appears to be between Trump and McMullin.

Despite the notion that voters this year appeared to want a change from traditional two-party politics, it is inconceivable that aside from Utah, third-parties will have any impact on Election Day.

Why then are third parties not polling as well as might otherwise be expected?

Politics in America is a rich man’s game. To mount a viable presidential election, candidates will need upwards of half-a-billion dollars – at a minimum.

Even running for lesser office is incredibly expensive. In 2010, two billionaire Republicans, Meg Whitman and Linda McMahon, sought election to the US Senate from California and Connecticut, respectively. Both women self-funded their campaigns, with Whitman spending $144 million, and McMahon almost $50 million. Both lost.

The reason for this is to reach into the public consciousness, and develop a ‘brand recognition’. In an age when voters have information at our fingertips, many are more interested with what the Kardashians are up to, than looking at policy issues which will affect their lives.

Voters glean what little information they know about candidates from thirty-second television commercials, which are very expensive to run, which is a catch-22 situation for third parties. On one hand, before people will donate to a party, they need to be confident that the party is viable at the ballot box. On the other hand, the way to convince donors – and voters – of this viability, is to run expensive advertising campaigns, which cost money that the minor parties do not have.

Even so, much of Trump’s success this year stems from supporters seeing him as a political outsider, which indicates that voters are in fact looking for an alternative. The problem is that these minor parties are relying on free-media to get their message across to voters. Free media is creating a story that is newsworthy enough to be carried by television networks across their evening news, at no cost. However, Trump is dominating the news because he is newsworthy, and any remaining time is then allocated to Clinton.

Many voters who may be looking for an alternative may not even be aware that there is one. And if they are, they may then feel that a vote for a third party would be a wasted vote.

Despite the ballyhoo about the rise of the political outsider, this author believes that third parties will receive fewer votes than the last presidential election in 2012.

Bryan Cranston is an online lecturer in politics, and PhD candidate at Swinburne University, Australia

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