Third Parties Rising? Why the Libertarian and Green Parties May Have a Shot at the Presidency
Republicans have floated the idea of running a more traditional republican politician as a third party opponent to Trump, and Bernie Sanders supporters have entertained the idea of Sanders running as a third party candidate against Clinton.
Neither of those scenarios seem likely, now that the republican establishment is (reluctantly) getting behind Trump, and now that Sanders has vowed to help Clinton defeat Trump, even though he has yet to drop out of the race or endorse Clinton.
But there are other options for voters, ones the Republican and Democratic parties would prefer you don’t think about: Third parties, a term used to describe any of the myriad political parties that would like to encroach upon the stronghold the two major parties have on American politics.
Because the nominees for the Big Two are so divisive, third parties think this is the year their nominees may actually have a shot at the presidency. Even if they don’t win, they’re hopeful they can make a bigger dent than in years past, perhaps paving the way for a rise in future support.
Two parties stand out amongst the third party jungle, both for the successes they’ve had in the past, and for the support they have now: The Libertarian Party and the Green Party.
Third Parties in Washington
The Libertarian Party and the Green Party are two of the most noteworthy and visible third parties in Washington State.
(Socialism is another powerful force in Washington, as evidenced by the election of self-described socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council in 2013. But there are several third parties that describe themselves as socialists, making it difficult to pin down one party that best represents all socialists. The Kitsap Scene emailed Socialist Alternative — a national, socialist organization that helped elect Sawant in 2013 — for this story, but did not receive a response.)
Libertarians are represented in Kitsap by Kitsap County Libertarians, an independent organization that, while autonomous, works in tandem with the Libertarian Party of Washington.
The Green Party doesn’t appear to have an organized party in Kitsap County. The Kitsap Scene reached out to Green Party of Washington State to ask if there was any kind of active Green Party organization in Kitsap, but did not receive a response.
One of the closest Green Party organizations we found was the Green Party of South Puget Sound, which covers neighboring Mason County, in addition to Thurston and Lewis counties.
We spoke with Tiffany Diaz De Leon, chair of the Kitsap County Libertarian Party, and Janet Jordan, co-chair of the Green Party of South Puget Sound, to get their takes on how their parties can best take advantage of the current political climate this November.
But before we get to them, we need to take a moment to evaluate who it is that’s running on these third-party tickets.
Meet the Candidates
The Libertarian candidate for president is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. His running mate is former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld. Johnson was the party’s nominee in 2012.
Johnson and Weld are both former republicans, and ran as republicans during their respective gubernatorial races.
Johnson received just under 1 percent of the national popular vote in the 2012 presidential election while running as a libertarian.
Jill Stein is the Green Party’s presumptive nominee for 2016 (the party won’t officially choose a nominee until its national convention in August). She was the party’s nominee in 2012.
According to a June 15 post on Stein’s website, she is in the process of reaching out to potential vice presidential candidates. Pennsylvania activist Cheri Honkala was her running mate in 2012.
Stein is a Harvard-educated physician and, while she has run for a variety of elected positions, including for governor of Massachusetts, she has never held elected office, save for two terms as a Town Meeting Representative for the town of Lexington, Massachusetts.
Stein received .36 percent of the national popular vote while running as the Green Party’s presidential nominee in 2012.
Kitsap County Libertarians
Tiffany Diaz De Leon was raised in a liberal family, but in 2005, she began reading the works of John Stossel — the libertarian pundit who formerly was part of 20/20 and who is currently hosting Stossel on Fox Business. She credits him with bringing her into the libertarian fold.
She joined the national Libertarian Party in 2008, officially becoming a card-carrying member.
Diaz De Leon joined Facebook for the first time in August 2014, and it was a rude awakening for her as far as online politics is concerned.
“I realized the world was so polarized still, left and right, and I felt that brought me out of the closet because I had something to say; there was another option, something in the middle,” she said.
Diaz De Leon formed the Kitsap libertarian group with Gary Welch, who has since moved out of the state. They started hosting meetings last May, and since then it’s taken off, she said.
Diaz De Leon defines libertarianism using three basic principles.
First, libertarians adhere to the “nonaggression principle,” which holds that the only appropriate use of force is to stop the inappropriate use of force.
Secondly, Diaz De Leon says, “Don’t hurt anyone and don’t take their stuff.” That can include over-taxation, as well as confiscation of guns, property, or land, she said.
“That means rich people’s stuff, that means poor people’s stuff, that means middle class people’s stuff. Just don’t take our stuff,” she said.
Thirdly, she says, “No one owns you and no one owes you. That should be empowering.”
The libertarian party is fiscally conservative and believes in free markets, Diaz De Leon said.
“It is my very strong opinion that, like 50 years ago, if government was out of health care and college, it would be so affordable that you wouldn’t need government subsidies,” she said.
When it comes to social issues, libertarians have more in common with liberals, she said.
“We could care less what anyone does with their life,” she said. “If a man wants to marry a man, we don’t care. If they want to smoke pot in their house, we don’t care. … We could care less what anyone does with their own particular life as long as it doesn’t affect us.”
Green Party of South Puget Sound
Janet Jordan is co-chair of the Green Party of South Puget Sound, which encompasses Mason, Thurston and Lewis Counties.
Jordan said she wasn’t involved when the South Puget Sound wing of the party was founded in 2000, but she said it’s likely it was formed in response to Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid against George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Jordan characterizes the Green Party as embodying the values which the Democratic Party espouses, but fails to act on. While the Democratic Party talks about environmental values, for example, the party is also tied up with corporations that benefit from policies that harm the environment, she said.
The Green Party is also committed to social justice reform — another issue democrats fail to take action on, by allowing rich CEOS to get away without paying much taxes, she said.
Locally, the South Puget Sound chapter of the party is interested in reforming the way the police works, and ensuring coal and oil trains are kept out of Washington, she said.
“We’re always very interested when they blow up or start to burn, flood all over the rivers,” she said.
Claiming the Middle Ground
The distaste among segments of the Republican and Democratic parties toward their own party’s nominee means there’s a large contingent of voters this year who may be more open than usual to voting for a third party candidate.
Traditionally, the Libertarian Party tends to attract more conservative, republican voters who are drawn to libertarianism’s small-government ideals. On the flip side, the Green Party tends to attract more liberal, democratic voters drawn to the party’s environmental, social justice and anti-war values.
“When we were at the national convention, we gave an award to Trump and Clinton for being the best recruiters of the Libertarian Party.”
— Tiffany Diaz De Leon, Chair, Kitsap County Libertarian Party
Yet, representatives from the Libertarians and the Greens feel they can draw voters from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
In addition to championing environmental protection and social justice reform, the Green Party favors strong local economies — an issue which could attract traditionally republican voters, Jordan said.
“We would prefer to keep everything local,” she said. “In that way, we are actually closer to the Republican Party. They say that of the people who voted for the Green Party in the contested Florida election (for the 2000 presidential race, in which Ralph Nader was a candidate for the Green Party) about 40 percent of the Green Party voters would have been Republican.” (We weren’t able to verify the accuracy of that percentage one way or another).
Diaz De Leon said libertarians obviously jive with conservatives on economic issues; in fact, they tend to be more conservative than the conservatives in that regard, she said.
But Johnson has plenty in common with Bernie Sanders as well, and Sanders supporters should consider voting libertarian, she said.
“There is a lot that they (Johnson and Sanders) do agree on and that is pro-gay marriage, pro legalization of marijuana, end the war on drugs, and (against) NSA spying and the war,” she said. “And that’s a lot of meat to chomp on. That’s a lot of good stuff we can go after. Technically, we’re not republican, or republican light, or democrat. We are libertarians.
“I think we do have a lot more to offer democrats if we didn’t have such negative perceptions,” she continued. “Maybe the republicans kind of already get us and we get them, whereas the democrats think we’re radical. We’re not really that radical. We’re actually more in the middle.”
All Talk, No Action?
Third parties have talked for decades about the need for more diversity in American politics. But, with a few exceptions, third parties have failed to make much of a dent in the firmly-ingrained two-party system.
“We do represent the things that people want. But people don’t want the temporary problem of sending the vote to the republicans in the meantime.”
— Janet Jordan, Co-Chair, South Puget Sound Green Party
Trump v. Clinton may have created an unusual opportunity for third party candidates, but the presidency isn’t going to fall into their laps. How do they seize the opportunity they’ve been given?
“When we were at the national convention, we gave an award to Trump and Clinton for being the best recruiters of the Libertarian Party,” Diaz De Leon said with a laugh. “We’ve skyrocketed since (Republican candidate Ted) Cruz dropped out.”
Diaz De Leon voted for Johnson in 2012, when he barely made a splash, but says this year could be different.
“No one knew who he was,” she said. “It’s totally different now. The stars are aligned. … I know there’s a small, small, small chance, but I think there’s a chance Gary Johnson could go far and even win. I wouldn’t probably say that on the record if all the candidates were so viable, but I know so many people who can’t stand Trump or Clinton.”
The increased media attention has been huge for the Libertarian Party, she said.
“We had 300-plus media outlets at our national convention,” she said. “There’s usually 10. So the percentage was thousands more than we had before. The fact that we’re on C-Span and NBC and Fox and we’re on these morning shows is huge. That, I know for a fact, is helping the cause nationally.”
Libertarians also have to break some of the negative perception associated with their party, she said.
“Once we can get past this (negative) perception, we actually have a very good message,” she said. “It’s just that we have to get past this perception that we are greedy gun-toters that don’t care about poor people or roads. We’re nothing like that.”
At the state level, the Libertarian Party is running a slew of candidates for positions ranging from Lt. Governor to Commissioner of Public Lands.
Locally, the party is building membership and attention through local meetings, Diaz De Leon said. Nationally, it’s positive press that’s building momentum.
For the Green Party, Jordan said it’s discouraging to see people leave the party because they’re terrified of letting a republican win. Overcoming that stigma is crucial to winning elections in the future, she said.
“Over the years, you can see what kind of a strategy that’s been,” she said. “Things just get worse. … It gets further and further away from what they really believe in and I just want to go back to the fact that we could have a different voting system. I’ve never seen anybody make that a big issue. But to me, it’s the heart of what’s wrong with our voting system and why we get worse candidates every year. Trump would not have been tolerated in other years.”
But how do you convince voters there’s another system that would work?
“It would be nice if somebody with a lot of popularity like Bernie would start talking about it,” Jordan said. “He could say very sincerely and very truly that that’s at the heart of why you find yourself having to vote for Hillary and why … (he’s) not in the race anymore. Of course, the Green Party candidate is in the race, but people hear the word ‘Green Party’ and they think ‘spoiler.’ That’s kind of automatic. And that’s our voting system. Somebody should point out to them that the voting system stinks.”
The ‘Spoiler Factor’
That “spoiler factor” is one of the main problems facing the Green Party. In the wake of the 2000 election, many people on the left felt Ralph Nader’s candidacy was responsible for Al Gore’s loss against George W. Bush. Similar charges were leveled against Ross Perot, who faced criticism from conservatives that he stole votes from George H.W. Bush in 1992 and handed Bill Clinton the election. And it’s not unheard of for republicans to claim that a vote for a libertarian candidate is really a vote for a democrat.
The “spoiler factor” is a problem, but it would be a temporary one on the road to ideological purity, Jordan said.
“If you voted Green, you’d be voting for a better candidate, but you might actually be throwing the election to someone who wouldn’t have gotten it otherwise,” she said. “We say that’s a temporary thing. That would be a problem while we’re going through our growing years. After a while we’ll have 20 percent, and then each year you look back on the percentage you got last year and more people join, because you look more legitimate when you get a bigger percentage. I think if we started doing that, we could grow to 51, 52 percent and start winning. Because we do represent the things that people want. But people don’t want the temporary problem of sending the vote to the republicans in the meantime.”
Whether the spoiler factor is even real is a matter of debate. For example, this post from liberal website Daily Kos argues that exit polls show Nader took votes equally from Bush and Gore.
Challenges Facing Third-Party Candidates
Third parties face challenges that the Republican and Democratic parties don’t have to worry about.
Republican and democratic candidates don’t have to worry about whether their candidates will appear on ballots in all 50 states, but third party candidates have to work to ensure they meet certain requirements to get on the ballot in each state.
Each state has its own laws determining ballot access. Many of the regulations, such as signature requirements, are criticized as favoring republicans and democrats over third parties.
Third parties often feel more financial strain, as well. In order to receive a federal grant from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, a candidate must have received 5 percent of the vote in the preceding election.
It’s also a challenge for third parties to be included in presidential debates. The debates are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit organization jointly controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties.
The commission sets the rules determining who can participate in presidential debates. To participate, a candidate must poll at 15 percent in five reputable national polls.
Gary Johnson is nearing that threshold; a Fox News poll from last week put him at 12 percent, whereas he was polling around 1 percent during the same time period in 2012.
On the other hand, a June 1 HuffPost/YouGov poll shows that most people don’t even know who Johnson is.
Jill Stein has even farther to go; a recent poll puts her at 5 percent.
The last time a third party candidate participated in the national debates was when Ross Perot did so in 1992. His inclusion in the debates seemed to have a significant impact on his electoral success. He earned nearly 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election. When he was controversially excluded from the debates in the 1996 election, he earned only 8 percent of the popular vote. Granted, other factors likely contributed to his dwindling support as well.
Although it’s been 14 years since a third party candidate has been included in a presidential debate, there’s hope that this year could be different. The Washington Post reported in January that the Commission on Presidential Debates is gearing up for the possibility of a third party candidate to be included in this year’s debates.
The article quoted an interview with commission co-chair Michael McCurry on the show “The Open Mind.”
“The dynamic in the electorate right now and the dissatisfaction with the two major political parties could very conceivably allow an independent or a third-party candidate to emerge, and we are very clear that they would be welcome in these debates,” McCurry said.
The End Goal? It’s Not Necessarily to Win
It’s not likely that Gary Johnson or Jill Stein will win the presidency this November. But that’s not to say there aren’t advantages to pulling a significant percentage of voters.
According to Jordan, if you could convince the people who agree with the Green Party’s ideals to vote green instead of democrat, the Green Party could easily get a high enough percentage to be included in the presidential debates next year.
“That would be important,” she said. “The debates are just a joke. They don’t show the different position that people could take in a presidential election. They just show very minor differences and, actually, they don’t even talk about the differences at all that much, (but more about) different personal characteristics.”
Jordan said the Presidential Debate Commission should be replaced with a nonpartisan entity. And if the Green Party could be included, it would be a step in the right direction in legitimizing third parties.
“I think Jill tried last time and obviously wasn’t allowed in, but she got close enough that they felt they had to throw her in jail to get her out of the way, so we were happy about that,” she said.
And of course, if a candidate can meet the 5 percent threshold, they could be eligible for money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. If politics is truly ultimately all about money, every cent could make a difference.
For more information on the Libertarian Party of Kitsap County, check out its Facebook page.
For more information on the Green Party of South Puget Sound, check out its website.
Featured Photo: Tiffany Diaz De Leon holds up a button featuring the Kitsap County Libertarian Party’s logo. (Steven Wyble / Kitsap Scene)