What happened to third party candidates?

Are the grand, weird third party experiments dead? Or is the media just not paying attention?

Lawn signs.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

I have fond memories of any number of third-party candidates from our last presidential election. Never mind Gary "What is Aleppo?" Johnson, who eventually secured the Libertarian nomination. I preferred his primary opponent Derrick Michael Reid, who introduced himself to me by saying, "You may not realize that I am an engineer, a lawyer, a military scientist, a bullion banking finance market analyst, and a geopolitical analyst." There was also the independent candidate Andrew Basiago, a lawyer with an I.Q. of 168 and extensive time travel experience, who in an alternate dimension is already living in the White House.

Then there was Dr. Jill. If you think I am talking about Mrs. Biden, you clearly spent very little time in 2016 with disaffected supporters of Bernie Sanders, for whom Jill Stein's far-out vision of eco-socialism was therapeutic. My heart is in the coffin there with her campaign.

Whatever happened to third-party candidates, I wonder? It is difficult for me to remember an election cycle in which they factored less in the mainstream media's coverage of the campaign. Johnson and Stein were household names in 2016, and both of them won shares of the vote in battlegrounds states like Michigan that ended up being larger than the eventual margins of victory. You can't say they weren't relevant or consequential.

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My guess is that this year the constituencies we think of as reliable supporters of various third parties are operating according to a different electoral calculus. Sure, Joe Biden might be the ghoul who gave us the 1994 crime bill; he continues to support fracking and oppose Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal. But he isn't Donald Trump, and for even the most committed progressive shoring up the fortunes of the slightly more woke of our two center-right neoliberal parties is more important than principles this year.

Still, I can't help but feel that it's sort of a shame not to hear from these candidates. The Libertarians in particular seem to have gone out of their way to select a nominee capable of winning over GOP voters. Unlike so many of the party's past candidates, Jo Jorgenson, a psychology lecturer at Clemson University, does not give off those unmistakable Libertarian vibes that turn off most voters who are not man bun-wearing tabletop war game enthusiasts. Nothing about her appearance or rhetoric suggests that she thinks the gold standard is the single most important issue facing the American people in 2020 or that she has ever been a ham radio operator.

Instead Jorgenson is running as a tough-minded, no-nonsense consensus seeker. She has been emphatic, among other things, about not making support for abortion (which she says she personally opposes) a litmus test and has suggested that the issue should be left up to the states, a position that is, in practical terms, indistinguishable from that of most Republicans. She has even released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees featuring names that most Fox News viewers would recognize.

Jorgenson's views on a wide range of issues — health care, entitlement spending, economic regulation, the role of the federal government in protecting the environment — are horrifying. But I am still surprised that, outside of Alaska anyway, she appears to be making very few in-roads with Trump supporters despite her full-throated opposition to lockdown policies, including state mask mandates. I for one would not be surprised if despite her lack of visibility in media Jorgenson ends up being a sleeper hit with red-state voters. The only question is whether her margins will be large enough to affect the outcome of any close races.

Despite another year filled with accusations of anti-Sanders skullduggery by the DNC, it seems to be the case that most left-wing voters are committed to holding their nose and voting for Biden. This, I think, is why the Green Party has been almost imperceptible in this year's campaign. I do not think I have read a single news story about Howie Hawkins, a perennial candidate in his home state of New York who co-founded the party three decades ago. I suppose there is always 2024.

Is it really such a bad thing that the press has decided to give virtually zero attention to candidates who have no chance of being elected president? I think so, if only because third parties are a reminder of something quixotic and essentially decent in the American character. A country that has no time for someone like Brian Carroll, the pro-life, pro-universal health care, pro-gun, pro-environment nominee of the American Solidarity Party who is a dead ringer for the Coca-Cola Santa, is one in which I would prefer not live.

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