If you think the nation has heard enough politics in two presidential debates, months of campaign speeches, and TV and radio ads, think again, say at least four alternative competitors for the nation’s highest office.
That’s why this slew of ballot-qualified contenders will face off in this election season’s biggest third-party candidate debate in Chicago on Oct. 23 (8 PM Central). Former CNN talk-show host Larry King will moderate, and the entire 90-minute event, to be held in a room at the Chicago Hilton, will stream live on the Internet television network Ora.tv and YouTube.
This may be reason to drop a load of celebratory balloons – or not, depending on whether you think third-party candidates embody the lifeblood of pure democracy or whether you believe they are the scourge of practical politics, throwing elections out of whack and the right politicians out of office.
It's pure American democracy at work, says Christina Tobin, co-moderator of the debate and founder of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, the Chicago nonprofit sponsoring the debate.
“This debate is really about the fact that all elections should be free and equal,” says Ms. Tobin. Right now, she adds, “they are not.”
What the event aims to do, she says, is “bring together two candidates from the left and two from the right and let them speak about real issues, the kinds of things that people really care about. From foreign policy, to the economy, to taboo subjects like our diminishing civil liberties and the drug war, Americans deserve a real debate, real solutions, and real electoral options.”
Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode, and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson are all currently confirmed to appear.
Third party candidates for president do not matter because they have had no impact on elections in the modern TV era, says Edward Uravic, a former Washington lobbyist and faculty member at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pa. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot received 18.9 percent of the popular votes in 1992, notes Mr. Uravic via e-mail, “and zero electoral votes out of the 271 needed to win.” Independent John Anderson got just under 7 percent of the vote in 1980 and no electoral votes. Segregationist candidate George Wallace earned 13.5 percent in 1968 and 45 electoral votes.
Single-issue candidates, such as the Green Party standard bearer Ralph Nader, “are interesting to academics and politicos, but to few others, including voters,” he says, adding that Mr. Nader got less than 3 percent of the vote in 2000, and no electoral votes. The system is stacked against third-party candidates, he says.
“It is nearly impossible for an independent candidate to get on the ballots in 50 states and to participate in the presidential debates,” he says. In the end, “third party presidential candidates are like unwanted relatives at Thanksgiving dinner," he adds. "It's a free country, so they get invited to the party, but in the end they don't get to eat at the big boys table.”
"The contest really is between two candidates at this point,” says Norman Provizer, director and founder of the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership at Metropolitan State University of Denver, adding that he is sympathetic to the desire of the Commission on Presidential Debates to not clutter the stage. “Having ten candidates debating, only two of which are actually viable in the race, would dilute things a lot,” he says.
But a forum for ideas not being heard at the mainstream presidential debates is also valuable, say political analysts. Third party candidates have been active almost from the beginning of the nation, he notes, pointing to the first in 1832. Probably the most impactful, he says, both in terms of ideas and his effect on the election was Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, who ran on the Progressive Party platform after losing his party’s nomination. He split the Republican vote, throwing the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. “But, his ideas such as voter participation, voter referendums, and recalls, all became policy in the US after that.”
The immediate impact of this debate with the four, third-party candidates is to broaden the political conversation beyond the predictable two-party lines, says Catherine Wilson, political science professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
A growing number of Americans, now 4 in 10, identify as political independents, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. “The absence of these voices in the presidential debates should give Americans pause, especially since one of the most common reasons to claim independent political status is that Americans tend to espouse a mixture of Republican and Democratic sympathies at the same time,” says Professor Wilson, via e-mail, citing a 2010 Pew Research Center report.
Yet, Americans register little support for these candidates, Wilson says. That's why offering a debate platform to major independent candidates is so important. Debates such as the one scheduled for Oct. 23 address the systemic constraints that would discourage candidates from running for office and helps keep them visible.
"In the end, this debate suggests that third-part candidates are here to stay, she adds.