3rd Party and Minor Candidates for President: Is it a Wasted Vote?

Folks this post isn’t about political ideologies but the process by which voters can change the system from within the system.  I former colleague who to my knowledge has no training in either the disciplines of history or political science and teaches in what would be a different college from the Liberal Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, or even Arts and Sciences as my university had during my undergraduate years made public comments about 3rd parties that are inaccurate.  Since he believes that he is correct and that I’m wrong, I felt compelled to provide a basic primer.

Note:  I am not advocating for any 3rd party.

Some History:

The United States has been a two party political system for the majority of its existence.  George Washington warned the nation of this split which he saw in the opposing ideologies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson even quit Washington’s cabinet when the President sided with Hamilton.

The names of our primary parties have changed:  Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Whigs, Democrats, Republicans. These parties evolved and philosophies were never stagnant over the course of time.  Parties have split formally such as the Democrats in 1860 when separate candidates kept the party affiliation; Republicans in 1912 when you had a GOP nominee and a former GOP president ultimately run under the banner of a new party; 1948 had a 3 way split in the Democratic ranks with one splinter due to foreign policy, another splinter due to domestic policy (Civil Rights), opposing the party selection of the incumbent.  We’ve seen one of the two major parties basically take on the platform of a 3rd party resulting in the end of that political party by name but the continuation of those planks as it happened in 1896.  For a brief period in the 19th century, we had a single political party as the Federalists died out, but it wasn’t long before factionalism reestablished the two-party norm.

In 1968, George Wallace competed against the major parties.  In 1980, John Anderson received considerable support as opposition to the major parties.  In 1992, Ross Perot did the same.

In 2016, the primary 3rd parties of which most people are aware are the Libertarian party and Green party.  There are others along with what are technically referred to as minor parties.

Is a vote for a 3rd party a wasted vote?

It’s not a simple yes or no answer as my former colleague contends with his staunch YES.

Truthfully the chances of a 3rd party candidate winning in 2016 is lesser than the proverbial slim and none, but just as the proverbial expression “Rome wasn’t built in a day” a political alternative is not built in a single election.

Two percentages mean everything for the viability of a 3rd party and eventual real alternative to the two major parties.

That first percentage is 5 percent.

When that threshold is reached in the prior election, the party becomes eligible for public funding which is connected to that little box on your tax forms.  It is more complicated and given SCOTUS and some wanting untraceable dark money from who knows who influencing our elections by buying and selling everything from socks to scarfs with souls at a premium and heads for trophy cases, public funding is not what it once was.  Still, it is one of the few ways for an alternative party to be able to compete financially.

I will also note that public funding in way illustrates how screwed up our priorities can be as a nation.  Given all the money tossed into politics by a few special interests, the major political parties began using public funding to finance their conventions.  In 2014, Barack Obama signed into law a provision halting the usage of those funds for conventions and instead those funds have been earmarked for a 10-year period to pay for a pediatric research initiative, the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act.

The second percentage is 15 percent.

That is because of a 501(c)(3) group that few know about (do not feel ashamed if you were not aware of this group) called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).  They determine who gets invited to appear on stage at the presidential debates.  This is for the general election and not party nomination process.  The CPD dates back to 1987.  Yep next year is its 30-year anniversary so any originalist proponents can conflate that with 1789 or 1791.

The CPD has used different methods to determine who gets invited to participate.

“Under the 2016 Criteria, in addition to being Constitutionally eligible, candidates must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College, and have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination. The polls to be relied upon will be selected based on the quality of the methodology employed, the reputation of the polling organizations and the frequency of the polling conducted. CPD will identify the selected polling organizations well in advance of the time the criteria are applied.”

Thus in addition to being on a sufficient number of state ballots in order to receive 50 percent +1 of votes cast in the Electoral College, a candidate must be polling at 15 percent.

One of the simplest ways for a third party or its candidate to receive the public attention necessary to compete is to first meet the 5 percent threshold in the previous election.  In the current election, the chosen candidate must reach that 15 percent threshold to be on stage with the candidates of the two major parties.  From there you have set the possibility of starting a snowball rolling and getting bigger and bigger.  It’s a long-shot, but for a snowball to have any chance in hell, it needs size to survive the heat.

If enough people would vote for a 3rd party to achieve the 5 percent threshold in 2016 and then by utilizing the public funding to achieve enough name recognition exposure and credibility to reach 15 percent and appear on the debate stage, then you do have a 3rd candidate in the actual race.

Winning would be a long-shot.

The last 3rd party candidate to receive electoral votes was George Wallace.  Still, long-shot or not, the only way to win is to be in the race.

As the Populists discovered in 1892 and again in 1896, if you’re in the race you don’t have to win in order to get your points across.  Your ideas may cross that finish line on the backs of another.  You lose, but your ideas live and sometimes continue well past the lifespan of everything else.