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Third-Party Candidates Had An Impact In 2016. In 2020, They’ve Struggled To Gain Traction.

Alternative candidates have labored in obscurity this election cycle. "This is probably the worst period for third parties in modern American history," Ralph Nader says.

Posted on October 31, 2020, at 2:35 p.m. ET

Sopa Images / Getty Images

Jo Jorgensen, the presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, gives her acceptance speech during the Libertarian National Convention at the Orange County Convention Center.

MONTCLAIR, New Jersey — It may not be obvious despite the election being a few days away, but there actually are third-party candidates this year, and they do actually hold public events with voters.

“I've been called a spoiler every time I run for office, and the false — one of the false parts of that narrative is that people assume if we weren't running, our people would vote for the Democrat,” Howie Hawkins recently told me. “But they may not vote at all.”

If you’re not too familiar with Hawkins, he’s the presidential nominee for the Green Party, which famously backed Ralph Nader and Jill Stein, and advocates for strong environmental policies and against nuclear power. We were sitting on a park bench in early October in leafy Montclair, a New York City suburb, where he was to hold an event. Hawkins had arrived early for the interview, wearing jeans, running shoes, and a Teamsters jacket. The thing that struck me most upon meeting him was his absolute normalcy. Hawkins is a retired longtime UPS worker and union member who got his start in political activism as a youth in the Bay Area. I asked him if it had been especially challenging to get his message out. “Very,” he said. “I have yet to speak to a network or cable news reporter or get a segment.” He’s done local NPR and local television interviews, but nothing national. “We just haven’t got the coverage that Jill Stein got,” Hawkins said. “Even Ralph Nader.”

That’s a big difference between 2016 and now. There’s another major difference between now and then, this one potentially significant to who wins and loses the 2020 election: Not that many people say they’re voting for these candidates.

“This is not a good year for third parties, because Trump is such a monster,” said Nader, the former Green Party candidate whose percentage of the vote in 2000 (2.7%) was blamed by many liberals as a contributing factor to George W. Bush’s victory. “And people are so afraid of what would happen if he had a second term that they don’t even want to think third party.”

The coronavirus pandemic, Nader said, had also hampered efforts at grassroots organizing and campaigning. “This is probably the worst period for third parties in modern American history.”

The 2016 election cycle was an unusually strong one for third parties: The Libertarian Party ticket featured two former governors, New Mexico’s Gary Johnson and Massachusetts’ Bill Weld; the Green Party’s candidate, Stein, had already built a profile from her previous presidential run in 2012.

Four years later, those two parties find themselves squeezed to the very margins during an election where undecided voters are few and far between, and media attention is fully consumed by the chaotic Trump administration and the contentious race between the president and former vice president Joe Biden.

In October 2016, Pew research found that 14% of registered voters planned to vote third party; 6% of the overall vote ultimately went to candidates other than Hillary Clinton and Trump. This time, Pew found that merely 5% of registered voters at the same point in the cycle support a third-party candidate; recent surveys showed that most third-party voters are switching to Biden. The perception that Stein, whose vote count in certain states was more than the margin between Trump and Clinton, played a role in Clinton’s loss has not helped.

If it were up to Hawkins, he told me before the event, he’d rather not be running for president at all; but decades of activism has taught him that the Greens must contend in the presidential race to gain any traction. He’d started out, with the birth of the Green Party in 1984, thinking presidential politics were irrelevant and that the party’s strategy should focus on bottom-up organizing. But this vision conflicted with the reality of the US system. “My attitude was that until we have a caucus in Congress, it’s not worth running for president. But what I didn't understand that I understand now is that you need to be in those races to get your ballot line.”

Hans Pennink / AP

Howie Hawkins during a gubernatorial debate at the College of Saint Rose, Nov. 1, 2018, in Albany, New York.

Like Hawkins, the Libertarian Party’s nominee, Jo Jorgensen, is a longtime party activist. She was the party’s vice presidential candidate in 1996 and is otherwise a regular person with a nonpolitical day job: psychology professor at Clemson University. Her running mate, Jeremy “Spike” Cohen, is an activist who ran as Vermin Supreme’s running mate in the Libertarian Party’s primary. And like Hawkins, her campaign is not satisfied with the media coverage they’ve garnered.

“The mainstream media certainly has not been covering this campaign,” her press secretary, Jess Mears, told me during an early October campaign visit to New York. Though Mears said that local media had paid closer attention and covered Jorgensen in each of the 120 cities she had at that point visited, I didn’t see any reporters other than myself at Jorgensen’s event in a city where a large number of reporters live.

The choice of venue seemed an odd one for a Libertarian candidate: Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street movement first struck camp as part of its wide-ranging protest against, in large part, financial deregulation and the post-recession Wall Street bailout.

“This location is filled with irony,” Cody Anderson, the chair of the Libertarian Party of New York, told the small crowd of perhaps three dozen attendees. “We’re on Liberty Street, here in the least free state in the country. We’re here in Zuccotti Park, which was possibly one of the biggest demonstrations against a free market that this nation, possibly the world, has ever seen.” (Though most presidential candidates wouldn’t consider New York City a crucial stop on the schedule a month before Election Day, for the Libertarians and other small parties, the stakes are high here. Anderson reminded the crowd that the party needs 160,000 votes in order to ensure ballot access in the next election; though the Libertarian Party crossed New York state’s threshold for automatic ballot access in 2018, the state legislature has since changed the requirement.) Jorgensen then spoke with no amplification or lectern, simply standing in front of the supporters who gathered in a large semicircle.

Her goal, she said, is to reach the millions of Americans who don’t vote, and who are fed up with the choices offered to them by the two-party system. “Most of our support does tend to come from independents or people who have never voted before,” Jorgensen told me. “And I've met people in their thirties and forties who said, ‘I've never voted. I never thought there was anybody worth voting for, but you know, you're not saying the same stuff as everybody else.’”

Jorgensen certainly isn’t saying the same stuff as everybody else, a quality that might hinder her more than it helps. She, for example, wants the United States to be more like Switzerland — neutral in all conflicts, but not isolationist. Her position on masks to counter the spread of COVID-19 is that the government shouldn’t be involved in adjudicating their use at all, and should instead rely on private companies like Walmart to set their own mask policies that will influence industry standards due to the forces of the free market. The core of her argument in favor of free-market healthcare is to prompt her audience to imagine if gas stations operated the way insurance-based healthcare did: “You would have absolutely no reason to shop around for the best gas prices. In fact, you might even go to an expensive one that gives you free coffee while you wait.” Lest the listener begin to think that sounds pretty good, Jorgensen lays down the meat of the argument: Gas stations would then have no reason to compete against each other and lower prices, and insurance companies could raise the hypothetical gas premiums.

Still, though Jorgensen’s message might not focus on mainstream ideas, voters will see her name on the ballot. She is on the ballot in all 50 states, unlike Hawkins.

The Green Party has faced issues this year gaining ballot access and is set to be on the ballot in just 28 states and Washington, DC. Democrats in Wisconsin made a concerted effort to keep Hawkins off the ballot, after many blamed Clinton’s loss there in 2016 at least in part on Stein. Hawkins and his running mate, Angela Walker, were kicked off the ballot due to a technicality: Walker had moved during the filing process, and her new address was different from the one she had when they submitted their signatures.

In response, Hawkins said, they tried to hire progressive lawyers to fight for their right to be on the ballot. But no one responded, so, he said, they googled to find new lawyers. They ended up being represented by Republican lawyers, a fact that, whether the Greens realized it or not, created an impression that they’d become stooges of Republicans trying to reduce the number of Democratic votes in Wisconsin. Hawkins said they knew about their attorneys’ political affiliations, but “if you go to court, you need a lawyer, and reading their briefs, they looked good to me.”

The attempt to gain access to the ballot in Wisconsin was ultimately unsuccessful, though it wasn’t the only effort made by Republicans on behalf of Greens this year. Republican consultants were reportedly involved in collecting signatures to get Greens on the ballot in multiple states, including another unsuccessful attempt in Pennsylvania.

Hawkins isn’t worried about the potential to be considered a spoiler. The assumption that Green voters would otherwise vote Democratic, he said, is false. Nader said Democrats “scapegoat the Greens.”

“The Republicans don't do as much scapegoating the Libertarians for some reason.” Spoiler, he said, is a “politically bigoted word.”

Hawkins, in response to a question in the Q&A portion of his talk in Montclair, pushed back against this concept.

“The people say you can't afford another Trump administration, they’re not dealing with the people that are oppressed and exploited and abused right now who can't afford a Democratic or Republican administration,” he said.

Hawkins’ point is principled. But third-party politics in the US are almost always about proving a point and pushing the mainstream parties in a certain direction. “The best outcome for the Greens is if they can get some of their agenda adopted by the Democrats,” Nader told me, saying he was just being “realistic.” In a country consumed by Donald Trump and an airborne pandemic, though, how much space is there for making a point?

In lieu of more media attention, both Hawkins and Jorgensen have tried to make the media an issue: Hawkins is trying to force Rush Limbaugh to give him equal time after Limbaugh devoted a program to a campaign rally for Trump earlier this month; Hawkins hasn’t heard back from Limbaugh, but with the help of lawyer Bruce Fein, filed a complaint with the FCC on Oct. 19, he said. He hasn’t heard back from them either.

Jorgensen this week took on, of all outlets, Nickelodeon, for excluding her from a graphic about the candidates. “Sadly, @Nickelodeon / @NickelodeonPR is complicit in indoctrinating our children that there are only 2 parties, even though there are 3 candidates on all 50 ballots and 4 who can get to 270. What a shame for America's future, #Nicknews.”

Mere days before the election, it’s unlikely that either the Libertarians or the Greens could change course. Hawkins on Thursday told me he’d finished his travel schedule and would be home in Syracuse, New York, for the duration.

Tom Violett, a cochair of the New Jersey Green Party, described organizing efforts this year as “very difficult.”

"People who I’ve worked with in organizing spaces say, ‘Not this time, I can’t do it,'" he said. "'I’ve got to vote for Biden.'"

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