In this American election cycle, as in all election cycles, practically all the media coverage and attention is on the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. In the media circus surrounding the election, the third-party candidates are all forgotten. And with the United States’ electoral system, it is with good reason. The first-past-the-post method of allocating electoral votes and the electoral college itself means that even third parties that perform very well nationally may not even make a dent in the electoral college. All one needs to do to demonstrate this is to go back to 1992. Ross Perot’s third party campaign was polling ahead of both Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. in spring of 1992, and Perot ultimately received almost 20% of the popular vote in the 1992 election. Yet as Perot’s vote was fairly evenly spread across the country, he received no votes in the electoral college.
However, a third party does not have to have a chance at winning the election to make a substantial impact. Third parties can also play spoilers in an election, performing well enough to tip key states in favor of one candidate. This usually requires that a third party do extraordinarily well, but prominent campaigns by smaller parties have been relatively cyclical. In the past century, third parties have had exceptional performances in the presidential election approximately every 12 to 20 years. The trend started with the Populist Party winning 22 electoral votes in the rural Western states in 1892. In 1912 the Progressive Party led by former President Theodore Roosevelt received 27.4% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes and splitting most states to give Democrat Woodrow Wilson a landslide victory and resulting in incumbent president Taft carrying only Utah and Vermont. The trend continued with a new Progressive Party winning Wisconsin in 1924, and regionally focused parties carrying states in the Deep South in 1948, 1960, and 1968. But 1968 was the last presidential election where a third party candidate won electoral votes outside faithless electors.
While no third party candidate has carried any states since the 1968 election, there have still been some prominent campaigns. In 1980, independent candidate John B. Anderson won 6.6% of the popular vote and received 15% of the vote in Massachusetts, which is the reason for the solidly liberal state going to Ronald Reagan. Ross Perot’s campaigns in 1992 and 1996 were the last exceptional showing by a third party candidate, though the extremely close nature of the 2000 presidential election caused Ralph Nader’s two percent to be enough to swing important states such as Florida and New Hampshire and thus swing the presidential election to George W. Bush. Now in 2012, it has been 16 years since a prominent third party campaign, and it is highly probably that this will be a notable election in that respect.
In the 2012 presidential election, there is only one credible third party candidate in the race, and that is Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Johnson has the advantage over other third party candidates in that he has established political experience. Gary Johnson as a Republican was governor of New Mexico for two terms from 1995 to 2003, and only sought the Libertarian nomination after he didn’t gain any traction in the Republican primaries. Johnson is also the most credible candidate that the Libertarian Party has ever run, and with most Americans at least willing to consider third party candidacies in 2012, he has a good shot at becoming a spoiler if not at winning any electoral votes.
Recent polling also suggests that Gary Johnson could have a large impact on the presidential race. In a national poll conducted in mid-July, Gary Johnson polled at over 5 percent in a three-way race against Obama and Romney. In statewide polling, Johnson has been most successful in the Mountain states, including polling at 13 percent in his home state. Johnson has also polled at above 5 percent in other Mountain states including Colorado, Arizona, and Montana, as well as getting above the 5 percent mark in New Hampshire and Wisconsin. While these numbers are not nearly large enough to consider carrying any of these states, it could be enough to swing Colorado one way or another, and may bring seemingly safe Republican states such as Montana and Arizona into play as Republicans in the Mountain west tend to be less socially conservative than in other parts of the country.
Aside from Gary Johnson, one other third party candidate may affect the outcome of the election. Virgil Goode, a former Representative from Virginia who switched parties from Democrat to independent to Republican during his tenure in Congress, is now running for president as the nominee from the Constitution Party. While the Constitution Party has nowhere near the traction the Libertarians and Johnson have nationally (polling at less than half a percent in a recent Gallup poll), Goode is still fairly popular in Virginia. In fact, a PPP poll in July with Obama, Romney, and Goode as the options had Goode with 9 percent while Obama led Romney 49% to 35%. In a state like Virginia that will probably be one of the deciding states in the election, a result for Goode that comes anywhere near the 9 percent mark will be a significant factor in determining the outcome in the state.
With two fairly established third party candidates running for president and polling this well, it’s undoubtedly going to be an exciting election. For the Libertarian Party, Gary Johnson is the best candidate they have run in a long time. And Johnson’s prospects mean a lot for the Libertarians. If Johnson gets at least one million votes or approximately 1 percent nationally, it will be the best national election result the Libertarians will have achieved since their founding in 1972, surpassing Ed Clark’s 1980 run. If Johnson is even more successful, he could be the first true spoiler in twelve years. If that happens, then the views of the Libertarian Party may enter into the mainstream political discourse. While some may dislike this prospect, I consider almost any good performances by third parties as beneficial as they show that the views of the American people do not reflect the black-and-white dichotomy created by a strictly two-party system.