Third Party Prospects in the 2014 Midterm Elections

It’s no question that the political system in the United States is dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties. There is little room for third parties or independent candidates and they rarely if ever gain a significant number of votes in any gubernatorial or Senate races. Or do they? Since 1990, 32 Senate elections and 49 gubernatorial elections have resulted in a third party or independent candidate receiving greater than 5% in the general election. Many of these races have been in the past few years. In the Senate, four races in 2010 and six in 2012 had significant minor party showings. Of the 2012 Senate races, Angus King won election from Maine and Bernie Sanders won reelection in Vermont; both are independents. Of the gubernatorial elections since 2010, seven races had significant third party showings. Two races, the 2010 elections in Colorado and Maine, had third party candidates take second place ahead of a major party candidate. The 2010 Rhode Island gubernatorial election saw independent Lincoln Chafee win the governorship. Chafee later switched his party affiliation to the Democrats in 2013.

With the 2014 midterm election cycle moving into the home stretch, there are an even greater number of both Senate and gubernatorial elections where a minor party or independent candidate has a chance at achieving a significant result. In five Senate races and seven gubernatorial races this year, independent or third party candidates have reached more than 5% in several polls from June and July. The buildup of support in the polls is important, especially for minor candidates. Historically, a minor candidate’s support tends to peak in October and fade in polling in the weeks prior to election day as voters return to their choice of the Democrat or Republican. The drop between polling averages and actual election results for minor candidates is often significant, so building a base in the coming months will be vital for any minor candidate that wants to make an impact on the election.

One of the more surprising aspects of this year’s Senate races is how many Libertarian Party candidates are polling higher than usual, in addition to the fact they are included in polls at all. This likely stems from the 2012 election cycle, when Libertarians performed well in several Senate races, topping 5% in Montana, Indiana, and Missouri. This cycle, the three Libertarian Senate candidates making waves are Robert Sarvis in Virginia, Sean Haugh in North Carolina, and Roger Roots in Montana. Sarvis, who ran for governor last year and received 6.6% of the vote, is running alongside Democratic incumbent senator Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie. Sarvis has been included in two polls in the campaign thus far, receiving 5 and 6% when he is included. Even if Sarvis polls well in the general election, he is not likely to make an impact on the outcome, as Warner currently leads Gillespie by an average of 17 percent.

While the Libertarians won’t impact the Virginia race, they could potentially swing two other crucial Senate races in North Carolina and Montana. In North Carolina, Republican Thom Tilis is challenging Kay Hagan for her Senate seat in a very close race. In this race, the Libertarians could prove to be a deciding factor. Pizza deliveryman Sean Haugh, whose campaign is primarily a website and Youtube channel, has consistently polled between 8 and 11 percent since May. Haugh’s strong show with minimal campaigning has actually been a boost to his campaign, receiving coverage from state and national media. Meanwhile in Montana, Libertarian Roger Roots could hamper Republican attempts to take the Senate seat made vacant by veteran Democrat Max Baucus. Democrat John Walsh, appointed to the seat after Baucus’s resignation, has been polling behind Representative Steve Daines for much of the race. However, Daines’ lead is narrowing, and Libertarian Roots has averaged 5% in the polls from the past month that Roots was included in. If the race continues to narrow, Roots’ conservative lean could take enough votes from the Republicans to keep the seat in Democratic hands.

In the 2014 Senate contests, the minor candidates who have gained the most traction have been a handful of independents. In South Dakota, former senator Larry Pressler entered the race as a moderate alternative to former governor Mike Rounds, who received the Republican nomination. Pressler is running for his old Senate seat which he held from 1979 until 1997, when current Democratic senator Tim Johnson defeated Pressler’s bid for a fourth term. Now that Johnson is retiring, Pressler is seeking his seat once again. While Pressler has polled as high as 18% in early June, Rounds is still the favorite in that race by far. However, another Plains state does have an independent who could make a splash in the race. In Kansas, where incumbent Republican Pat Roberts is facing a difficult Tea Party primary challenge, independent candidate Greg Orman seems to be doing much better on the campaign front. Orman, a businessman from Olathe near Kansas City, is running as a moderate voice, like Pressler. However, Orman seems to be performing much better. While Democratic candidate Chad Taylor has raised only $10,000 in his campaign, Orman has raised over $600,000, is already running TV ads, and is already polling at 14-17%. This is from a candidate who declared his intention in June and has yet to even make it onto the ballot! Orman claims he has over 10,000 signatures, double the requirement for making the November ballot, so it is likely his name will be there. If this momentum continues or Roberts loses his primary on Tuesday, it could turn out that Orman, not Taylor, is the major contender with the Republicans for the Kansas Senate seat in November.

In addition to the Senate races, there are also a number of gubernatorial elections in 2014 that could see strong performances from minor party candidates. The two Libertarians who have done well in the polls are not doing as well as the party’s Senate candidates. In Florida, Libertarian Adrian Wylie is polling anywhere between 3 and 8 percent, but the average puts the likely result toward the low end even without the usual drop from poll results to election results. Even so, with the race between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist narrowing, Wylie could still be a spoiler in the race. The other Libertarian gubernatorial candidate that is doing well is nanotechnologist Andrew Hunt in Georgia. While Hunt is polling between 4 and 10 percent, the runoff system in Georgia deprives the Libertarians of any significant presence. Unless Hunt gets a nearly impossible boost by election day, Democrat Jason Carter and incumbent Republican Nathan Deal will be going to the runoff election even if Hunt gets enough votes to deprive both of a majority.

Besides the two Libertarians, there are five independents who have been polling well in various gubernatorial races this year. In Maine, Eliot Cutler is running for the governorship again after coming in second in 2010. However, this year there is a credible Democratic candidate in Representative Mike Michaud. Cutler’s 36% showing and near victory in the 2010 race has dropped to 15-20% in polling for the race this year. While this is a respectable showing, it is behind both Michaud and incumbent and unfavored Republican governor Paul LePage who defeated Cutler in 2010. One surprising challenge from an established candidate has arisen in Hawaii. The Hawaii gubernatorial election already had unpopular incumbent Democrat Neil Abercrombie facing a primary challenge from state senator David Ige, as well as Republican former lieutenant governor Duke Aiona. However, now the race is complicated by the entry of former Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann as an independent. Hannemann polled between 15 and 18 percent in recent polls, and has narrowed the gap significantly in the race. Additionally, Hannemann has not done much campaigning yet, waiting until after the Democratic primary to see how the field for the general election turns out.

This leaves three more independent candidates that have had strong showings, but these may be deceiving do to the nature of the polling in these races. In Alaska, former Valdez mayor Bill Walker has polled at around 17% in his independent bid for governor. However, the last poll to include him was in May and there has been scant polling of the race since. In Massachusetts, while there has been a lot of polling, showings from minor candidates has been scattered due to the somewhat competitive primaries for both the Republican and Democratic candidates. However, Jeff McCormick appears to be polling at somewhere between 5 and 7 percent on average in the various combinations of candidates. Whether McCormick’s numbers will stay this high after the primaries is uncertain. Lastly, a single poll in the Vermont gubernatorial race has independent Emily Peyton taking a surprising 15%. The poll is from July so it is recent, however a single poll is far too little to make a reasonable judgement of the actual popularity of a candidate.

So how many of these candidates will maintain their high numbers into the general election? It’s far too early to tell, and with the usual disparity between polling numbers and actual vote tally, it is very likely that some of these candidates will drop below the 5% metric sometimes used to determine “successful” minor candidacies. However, the 2014 elections do seem to show that third party runs are on a relative rise in popularity, at least for the time being.

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