Even though American politics is largely a two-party system, third-party candidates often have a dramatic impact, changing election results and reshaping Republican and Democratic priorities. In a close two-way race between team red and team blue, an election is often decided by voters leaning towards a third alternative. To woo these voters, major-party candidates often try to move their platform in that direction.
Candidates like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader may not have won, or even come close, but the competition for the voters they represented dramatically altered American politics. Perot made balanced budgets the hot topic of the 1990s. Nader made clear that Democrats could not ignore their far-left base or take it for granted, setting off a leftward surge that bore fruit in future election cycles.
For the past two elections, the Libertarians have held this catbird perch under nominee Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. Johnson vaulted the Libertarians into the third place spot, and won more votes than all the others combined. This wasn’t always the case: Prior to Johnson, one has to go all the way back to Rep. Ron Paul in 1988 to find the Libertarian nominee taking the “bronze medal.”
Given the leverage that can come from being the largest alternative party, who will hold that spot in 2020 is not an unimportant question. The Libertarian Party’s status as the third party is up for grabs.
The biggest hurdle for a third party is simply ballot access
The biggest hurdle for any start-up political campaign, be it third party or independent, is simply getting on the ballot.
In 2016, the Johnson/Weld ticket was the only alternative to Trump and Clinton to make it onto the ballot nationwide in all 50 states. That’s largely because the Libertarian Party has earned ballot status in most of the country, leaving just a handful of states to be covered with petitions.
For those without such infrastructure, it is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars to place a presidential candidate on the ballot for all voters. That’s done through the hard work of petitioning, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures from eligible voters under each state’s election laws. It’s a substantial hurdle, and the longer one waits to start, the harder it gets.
It’s not impossible for others to achieve. The Greens are already close, typically making it to more than 40 states. In 1992, Perot challenged his supporters to get him on ballots before he’d even enter the race, which they amazingly managed to do. The right combination of voter enthusiasm and big money can get it done.
The Green Party is a potential competitor for third party standing
Libertarians can’t rest on the laurels, as there are a range of potential options each vying for the third spot, nationally.
The Green Party is one such alternative. Physician Jill Stein was the party’s candidate in both 2012 and 2016, both times placing a distant fourth behind Johnson. She appears to be getting ready for another bid, but it’s possible a better-known progressive activist could jump in. The party’s peak was 2000, with Ralph Nader as its nominee.
That year, the famed consumer advocate won more than two percent of the vote, and was notoriously being blamed for costing Gore the election. If the Democrats nominate another Clinton-style moderate centrist, it’s conceivable that a big-name candidate could bolt and threaten their left flank.
The third party Never-Trump movement isn’t dead yet
An Independent Conservative candidacy is another strong possibility, assuming that President Trump is nominated again for re-election. So-called “Never Trump” Republicans, who tend to be hawkish on foreign policy and more moderate on domestic issues, flailed about desperately trying to recruit such a candidate in 2016.
After Mitt Romney and a bevy of other senators and governors declined to take the plunge, the group lead by neoconservative Bill Kristol eventually anointed an obscure National Review writer, David French. But he declined Kristol’s entreaties. These neocons eventually settled on House staffer and former CIA employee Evan McMullin. Although he scored an impressive 21 percent result in his home state of Utah, McMullin was only on the ballot in eleven states and won a negligible share of the national popular vote.
Could this dynamic change in 2020? Might somebody like Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, or Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, seek to fly the #NeverTrump banner in the general election? If so, they might suck up all of the oxygen available to other third-party campaigns, and also become instant media darlings.
Constitution Party could run an alt-right candidate
But what about the pro-Trump side of the Republican Party? After the ouster of Steve Bannon from the White House, it looks possible that there could be a Trumpist Alt-Right ticket in the 2020 election, particularly if Trump himself either doesn’t run for re-election, or is denied the Republican nomination.
Bannon himself might be one possibility to represent the neo-nationalists and populists. Roy Moore of Alabama, fresh from his victory in the Republican primary in the race for U.S. Senate in Alabama, might be another. Moore was once courted for a presidential bid by the far-right social conservative Constitution Party, but ultimately decided against it.
The Constitution Party has not done well in recent years. Still, it typically has ballot access in more than 20 states. That’s a good opening for any far-right candidate and a better head start than an independent conservative candidate would have.
A Centrist third party candidate is also a possibility
Finally, there almost always seem to be perennial efforts to push a ticket from some new Centrist party. In 2008, this effort was deemed Unity’08. In 2012, it got rebranded as Americans Elect. In 2016, the same essential idea was back again as Better for America. In each of these cases, a group of centrist-minded large donors offered ballot access and financial support for a viable middle-of-the-road campaign. In each case, the effort collapsed because no worthwhile candidate accepted the offer.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been the main object of speculation surrounding these efforts, though others might include Alaska’s independent governor Bill Walker, or Maine’s independent senator and former governor Angus King.
Competition for the Libertarian Party is on the horizon
Each of these scenarios is, on its own, a slim possibility. But taken together, they represent a real threat to the Libertarian Party’s valued position as – at least for now – “America’s third-largest political party.”
Whether a shift takes place hinges on who the Libertarians wind up nominating in 2020. If Libertarians retreat back to internal factionalism of the 1990s and 2000s, including self-defeating extremism and running obscure and unqualified candidates for president, then the 2020 bronze medal could be seized by another. Nominating a candidate without name recognition, fundraising ability, or political experience would be a death knell.
The old saw about third parties is that, like bees, they sting once and then die. The year 2016 represented the most potent sting from the Libertarian Party in its 45-year history. In 2020, it’s up to the party to prove the adage wrong.
(Photo of Former Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland by Gage Skidmore.)