In recent weeks, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian, Gary Johnson, have been making the rounds in the media, hoping to draw up the support of the loose stragglers of the Bernie camp, among other disenfranchised souls weary of the Donald and HRC. Chasing that elusive 15% (required to enter the national debates) has so far proved a challenge however, with current polling placing Johnson just under the 10% bracket and Stein at a mere 3%. Is it that these candidates are lackluster? Do they simply lack the magnitude bestowed upon others by the mainstream media? Or is it that old adage at play that affirms a vote cast for an independent is a vote thrown in the garbage? As always, it’s a bit of everything but history, once again, speaks loudest.
Despite the occasional disruption, America, for the most part of its recent history (20th Century), has championed a two-party system. This has developed as a result of natural inclination and artificial structures placed on its political thresholds. With regards to the former point, these two parties have essentially been afforded the right to prosper, owing to conditional and enterprise funding over the years as well as historical gravitas. The party of FDR, for instance, is an institution in itself and tradition, while valued, is often upheld merely for the sake of its own legacy. With the moral decay of the GOP and its hopeful actual decay in the future, one would think a third-party could possibly build itself on the crumbling mounds of another, but a three- or four-way battle is rarely as marketable for the media and public. In America, commercial tendencies encroach on all avenues of life.
In relation to these artificial constructs then, we must remind ourselves of the unfortunate nature of America’s election cycle and government. They do not facilitate a parliamentary-like system, the way ourselves or the UK do. With most of their votes, plurality laws eliminate the point of acknowledging where the minority votes lie- even if that is a very slight minority. Basically, winner-takes-all. This, of course, simplifies the already tedious process of the election cycle but it also obfuscates the diverse range of public opinion. Even with many of the latter Republican primaries for example, this applied so that Donald Trump, though opponent-less later on, would be the unrelenting winner. (Surpassing 50% isn’t even mandatory for this reasoning.) This hardly seems necessary for establishing the preferred candidate, when everything is only officially tallied up at the conventions. Math is not the GOP’s forte however. With single-district representation and plurality at play, the scientific study of Duverger’s law has found that such countries will thus be more likely to develop a two-party system.
Theoretically speaking then, a third-party candidate’s ascension to the White House is not impossible. The climb however is steeper than the one even Bernie had to climb (he was after all, an independent who adopted the Democratic Party to his advantage.) Huge wads of cash won’t do it alone; even with his popular inclusion in the televised debates, Ross Perot wasn’t able to budge a single electoral vote in either the 1992 or 1996 elections. Framing yourself as a genuine alternative may prove appealing to some but as Ralph Nader’s candidacy proved in 2000, without enough steam, you can cause significant damage by taking votes that would have been cast for another candidate. (This humorously led to Bill Maher and Michael Moore begging him not to run in 2004.) In fact, the last actual candidate of a third-party persuasion to make any notable stride was George Wallace in 1968, who took 46/538 electoral votes. And who was the most successful third-party candidate of all time? Well, they fared a great deal better in the 1800s when the two-party system was still in development but the answer is Theodore Roosevelt from 1912, who for obvious reasons, was an exception.
With Trump and Clinton being the two least popular candidates in decades however, is it not plausible that 2016 could do another flip and present the so-called impossible alternative? Logically speaking, this is a sound theory but as aforementioned, the 15% is still out of reach and the first debate is coming up at the end of this month. After that point, if not already so, most people will have decided if they’re wearing blue or red this November. If a third color is to succeed in breaking this fashion trend (which I do not mean literally, I intend to wear an array of clothes), then it will be because of a strong mass organisation which eschews the notion that a third-party vote is a wasted one. Any other kind of philosophy will continue to hold back the prospect of a third-party president ever existing.