The End Game for Third Parties

Running for president is complicated. Even with loyal party members and enthusiastic donors rooting for your success, the process of becoming the ruler of the free world requires the budget of a small country, a degree of psychological stability reserved for astronauts, and a nearly perfect record of lucky breaks. With every advantage pressed by the best political minds in the business, the outcome is still a gamble. But whatever the end result, both candidates will fight until the last vote is tallied.

Third-party candidates for the U.S. presidency face a fundamentally different reality. The biggest difference is that, historically, third-party candidates do not expect to win. Why would anyone run knowing they have no chance to actually win? Well, many third-party candidates run to promote a single issue. The Green Party for example is all about environmental policy. Third parties often focus on a single issue as a way to get the major candidates to talk about them, thus bringing the issue into the mainstream political debate.

Another reason third-party candidates run is to make the party more competitive in the future. Third parties are at their strongest when the major parties are at their weakest. The 2016 election has been very polarizing, both within and between parties. As a result, third-party candidates are looking to capitalize on those voters who would otherwise “settle” on a candidate or choose not to vote at all. The key to the success of a third party is bringing in enough votes to qualify for some of the privileges the two major parties already enjoy.

Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, third parties do not automatically qualify to get on the ballot, receive public funding or even appear on the debates. In order to qualify for federal funds, a third party must carry at least 5% of the vote in the previous election. Appearing in the debate requires a pre-debate poll showing of at least 15%. Even getting on the ballot in each state requires state-by-state petitions (and the funds required to go through the process in every state).

If these rules seem a little unfair, the effect isn’t accidental. Republicans and Democrats, for all their bickering and fierce disagreement, can agree on one thing: third parties are bad for business. And it is the two major parties who make the rules of the game before they compete to win it. Third parties face the classic political Catch-22: to change the rules, you need a seat at the table; but to get a seat at the table, you have to change the rules.