The first presidential debate of the election season was met with the expected responses: some viewers reacted negatively to Trump, some to Clinton, and many to both candidates. A lot of Americans have expressed that this election feels essentially like choosing the lesser of two evils. But the sadder reality is that these two “evils” have already been chosen to represent their political parties.
Many have complained that neither of the candidates are “sane” choices, and that if a candidate were anyone else but these two, then the voting decision would be a no-brainer. But how badly does America want this third choice? There have been alternatives to Clinton and Trump throughout the election. At first these alternatives existed within the big political parties, such as senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, the latter of whom was met with great popularity. Once the nominations were decided, however, there still remained third-party candidates, notably Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. The “sane” choices have been available to the American public, but the election season has followed a course that led to last Monday night regardless.
To what can this failure to get a third candidate on the debate stage be attributed? For many voters, a common rationale is not wanting to “throw their vote away,” meaning that if they vote for someone besides a major candidate, the opposing party gains a slight edge from that misplaced vote. This is not wholly unfounded, as something similar happened in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party to run against the Republican nominee, William Howard Taft. This pulled votes away from Taft over to Roosevelt, but not enough from the Democratic party to prevent Woodrow Wilson from winning the election instead. It is understandable that current voters would want to avoid such an ironic turn of events. But the irony this year is that this pervasive fear has led to even worse candidates than one might have thought possible by “playing it safe” with his or her vote. This doesn’t explain, however, why third-party candidates can’t do well in polls, when less is at stake.
On the other hand, the rules have never been kind to third-party candidates. Despite appearing in every election and often amassing popular followings amongst disenfranchised voters, they have almost never made it to the debate stage. John Anderson did in 1980, and Ross Perot did in 1992—over 20 years ago. It does not come as a surprise to hear that these candidates do not receive big press coverage, often because big media seeks to support one major party or the other. It would not be unfair to blame part of these third-party candidates’ lack of success on not being given the opportunity, indeed, the visibility, to achieve success. Johnson’s campaign came very close. He was on the ballot in all 50 states, which was one of the requirements to participate in the presidential debates, but he did not meet the other requirement; the Commission on Presidential Debates states a candidate must gain 15% support on five national polls—Johnson managed 11%.
Whether the rules are too tough so that third-party candidates can’t make headway, or whether voters are more likely to approve of major party candidates (or just not participate in polls at all), it’s hard to say. But what is clear is that votes can make a difference, and although it is too late to get Johnson or Stein into the debates, it is still imperative that those who can vote do so and influence the country’s future.