The 2016 Republican National Convention was rocked with scandal after a prominent Republican contender refused to endorse the man who bested him. And the 2016 Democratic National Convention was rocked with scandal after a prominent Democratic contender endorsed the woman who bested him.
Even just a few days after the two major national party conventions, it’s clear that both fell short on what the modern conventions are designed to do: unify the party. (Even though Democrats fared a bit better, emotions were still sharply divided.) Both parties have emerged from Cleveland and Philadelphia with deep, generational wounds that seem unlikely to heal anytime soon.
And sensing the fresh blood, the smaller, often sidelined third-parties have been there to lick up the cuts.
Typically, third parties are viewed as spoilers, preventing the major parties from reaching a plurality. President George H.W. Bush blamed billionaire Ross Perot for his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. Establishment Democrats blamed the Green Party's Ralph Nader for ushering President George W. Bush into the White House in the notorious 2000 election, when Nader drew about 3% of the vote. "Nader cost us the election," then-Senator Joe Biden sniped at the time. (The debate is still out on the issue: People forget that nearly half his votes came from people who were likely to otherwise vote Republican, and )
Representatives at the two most prominent third parties, the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, told Fusion they have seen unprecedented sustained growth over the last several months. In a nation that hasn’t seen a truly viable third-party presidential candidate since the 1992 elections when Perot gained 19% of the vote, it seems increasingly likely that at least one third party might be joining the fray.
The question is whether the growth can sustain itself not only in this election, but enough to usher in a more inclusive era of politics, which has existed on the binary Republican-Democratic axis for so long. There is some surprising evidence that we might be headed in that direction. A recent ABC/ Washington Post poll found that about one in five Bernie Sanders supporters said they are likely to defect from the Democrats to a third party, while slightly fewer non-Trump Republican supporters said the same.
“Our politics is evolving,” said Rob Ritchie, the executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit organization that advocates for more representative election systems. “We know that voters are hungering for something more, and that the inherent issues and tensions within the current system are only getting more pronounced.”
Many more disgruntled Democrats are heading to the Libertarian Party than non-Trump Republicans heading to the Green party, according to the ABC/Washington Post poll.
"We're seeing growth we didn't see in 2008 or in 2012,” said Wes Benedict, the executive director of the national Libertarian Party. “We usually go up in election years, but not like this."
The party’s dues-paying membership has grown about 52.5% since January, he said.
Out of all the third parties, Libertarians are the most likely to make it into the mainstream election. They are only a few percentage points short of reaching the 15% mark in national polls that would grant entrance to the televised debates, and, unlike the Green Party, are on track to make it onto the ballot in all 50 states.
"If being in the presidential debates actually happens, then in my opinion anything is possible,” presumptive Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson recently told Alex Rivero, a reporter for Martí Noticias (and my father).
It’s very unlikely that Johnson would have a chance to be our next president, especially so late in the game. But a Libertarian ticket stands to give traditional Republicans who might have sat out a Trump-Clinton election something to come out for, and getting them to the polls helps ensure that traditional Republicans don't get slaughtered in House and Senate races thanks to the weak ticket, as many fear.
The Libertarian’s presumptive ticket is closely aligned with traditional Republicanism, as opposed to the Trump style of doom and gloom that has overtaken the party this cycle. Johnson was a two-term Republican governor of New Mexico. His running mate, Bill Weld, was a two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts. Both are still popular among traditional conservatives in Utah—one of the most Republican states in the nation—according to a SurveyUSA poll, where Johnson is swaying a huge amount of conservatives. That's not to mention a growing number of non-Trump Republicans already having issued endorsements, and with Johnson alluding to future high-profile endorsements to come. When Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump at the RNC, some looked at his call for people to vote their “conscience” as a slick endorsement for the Libertarian party.
“The Libertarian party is poised to be this election season's dark horse,” notes conservative site RedState.
The Green Party is also seeing gains. The party’s line is closely aligned with the vision of America laid out by Bernie Sanders, and presumed Green nominee Jill Stein has been aggressively courting his supporters. The DNC saw massive anti-establishment Democrat rallies by Sanders supporters, many of whom have already left the party to either go independent or to switch to the Greens.
The Green Party was immediately “flooded with offers to volunteer for the party” after Sanders endorsed Clinton at the DNC, said Scott McLarty, the media director of the national Green Party.
"This has been a real watershed year,” he said. “People are recognizing that the major parties aren't serving their interests, and that we desperately need alternatives."
McLarty didn’t have specific registration numbers he could share, though he is certain they have gone way up. It’s unlikely that the Green Party will reach the 15% needed to get into the televised debates, but he hopes the boost in interest will have a longterm effect on the party’s involvement in state and local elections—which is what many believe is the key to cracking the code of longterm change in the U.S. election system. Sex columnist Dan Savage, who often weighs in on politics, colorfully made this point on a recent podcast episode: “Here’s how you fucking [build a third-party system]: You run people not just for fucking president every four fucking years.”
Local elections “are of primary importance to us,” said McLarty. “The presidential election is more ancillary, but those local and state elections are absolutely winnable."
The Green Party already has about 100 elected officials across the nation, with the Libertarian Party at about 145. Still, it’s always an uphill battle for smaller parties. States and cities have varying requirements to get onto ballots, some more stringent than others. Also, our current winner-take-all style of plurality politics favors a two-party system, with third-parties looked upon with skepticism; if you win the most votes you get everything, and even if you have 49% of the vote, you get nothing.
That’s starting to change. A few major cities, like San Francisco and Minneapolis, have recently ushered in the concept of “ranked choice” voting. The concept allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than voting for a single candidate. In the event of a runoff, second and third preferences of the voters are calculated, until at some point a clear majority is determined. The system has long been used in Australia, Ireland, India, the UK, and Papua New Guinea.
"One of the clearest things we see in cities that use this is it does away with the stigma of calling smaller parties a spoiler, since you’re not ‘taking away’ votes from anybody, and just voting your preference,” said Ritchie.
In November, ranked choice voting is on the ballot for statewide elections in Maine. It would be the first state to do so, marking a major step towards political inclusion.
The stakes are high for the Green Party and the Libertarians. If either party is able to reach a total of at least 5% of the vote in the presidential election, they will be able to qualify for public funding. Getting that money would help them build up momentum in local and state races, with their eyes on 2020.
“The big question right now is whether they get into the debates and cross that viability threshold,” said Ritchie. “If they don’t cross that threshold, then people might get locked into the ‘oh my God I have to choose between these starkly different choices for president’ kind of mentality.’”
The first televised presidential debate is scheduled for September 29, in Hempstead, New York. Third-parties have until Labor Day to make it to the 15% support they need to gain access. In the quest for a more inclusive electoral system, it's crunch time.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.