We may be in for yet another surprise in this shocking presidential campaign cycle. Nearly every election is a showdown between Democrats and Republicans, with independent candidates or those running as nominees of smaller parties barely making the news. But this year, there's a surprising amount of discussion about the possibility of a viable third-party candidate. Refinery29 spoke with Dr. Trevor Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland professor and political expert, and Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, about what we should expect.
Why are people talking about a third-party candidacy this election season?
The discussion over a third-party candidate has come about now because Donald Trump, the GOP's front-runner, has horrified most of the Republican establishment with his campaign so far. Fellow Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich slammed Trump last week for suggesting women who seek abortions should be "punished," a statement he later retracted. And last month, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney told CNN that Trump is "playing members of the American public for suckers." In response, a group of Republicans hatched a last-ditch plan: bringing in a third-party candidate in swing states, winning enough votes to block both Trump and the Democratic nominee, according to The Daily Beast. This would turn the decision of who is president over to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. But members of the party are hoping it doesn’t come to that, and have developed strategies to prevent Trump from getting the nomination in the first place. If they manage to stop him in his tracks, Trump has the funding to support a third-party bid of his own — another possible way his unconventional run could result in a high-profile third-party candidacy. And of course, there are already traditional third-party candidates running: the Green Party's Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson. But it's difficult to amass the resources — and media coverage — necessary to compete with the other candidates. When Stein ran for president in 2012, she pulled in fewer than 400,000 votes across the country, according to Slate.
Has such a candidate ever been successful?
Both Parry-Giles and Levesque cited Ross Perot, who ran an independent presidential campaign in 1992, as a recent example of a successful third-party candidate. Perot gained 19% of the popular vote that year, making him the most successful third-party presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. But Perot didn't win a single state in the electoral college, which determines the outcome of the election. Perot also had financial backing and support and started his campaign sooner than any third-party candidate would be able to in this election, Parry-Giles noted. The United States doesn't have a history of presidential candidates being successful outside the two-party system, largely because of the resources and support that the major parties provide to candidates. Ralph Nader, who ran for president five times as a third-party or independent candidate, recently penned an op-ed for The Washington Post about why Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was right to run as a Democratic candidate, even though he's an independent senator.
How would he or she get onto the ballot?
Third-party candidates have to get onto each state ballot individually, and the process varies state-by-state. Levesque said some states require thousands of signatures to get onto the ballot, which then have to be verified and given to the secretary of state. And beyond the ballot logistics, presidential bids are incredibly expensive. Jeb Bush, for example, spent $130 million on his 2016 presidential campaign, and he didn't win a single primary state, according to the The New York Times. Parry-Giles said that due to both of these factors he doubts we will see a third-party candidate announce at this stage. Levesque, however, said, "It's an arduous process — but nothing is impossible, in politics, especially."
Who could potentially run?
The most notable person speculated to jump into the race late this year was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced in March that he won't run in this election. But even though Bloomberg is opting out, some people are still holding out hope that a third name will make it onto the ballots. One name that's reportedly been raised in political circles is former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), though the governor has denied interest in running. But it would be an uphill battle for Perry to run against Trump if he secures the Republican nomination, Parry-Giles said. "He's got to hire people, get people going, get up to the offices, make up the signs, do the planning, all that stuff — and he's got to do it really fast, and really quickly…That's why the two-party system is so strong in the United States. It's been in place for decades and has a very strong foundation throughout the country." And of course, Trump has threatened to launch an independent run if he doesn't secure the GOP nod. "We're going to have to see how I was treated," the self-funding businessman said. "I want to be treated fair." While Bernie Sanders is an independent senator, don't expect him to run as an independent candidate if he doesn't secure the Democratic nomination. "I think the odds are much greater that you’ll get a Republican-type third-party bid," Parry-Giles told Refinery29. "I think Bernie Sanders knows that it would be a fool's errand."
What effect would a third-party candidacy have on the election?
A third-party bid could have the opposite of its intended effect. By dividing the party's vote between similarly leaning candidates, a third presidential hopeful on the ballot could secure a victory for the opposite party. So, in the hypothetical case of Rick Perry running as an independent, for example, his running against Trump might make the Democratic nomination more likely to win the election. "In the case of Ross Perot, for example — clearly, he had a message which was potentially more in line with the Republican party, and therefore helped elect Bill Clinton with 43% of the vote," Levesque told Refinery29. "So, is it technically possible for a third-party candidate to win a presidential election? Yes, it is. But with the way that these parties operate and the history of electoral voting, it has not been possible."