Two Tuesday primaries ago, after a rash of losses in large states on the Atlantic seaboard prompted the media to pronounce the Bernie Sanders campaign over, presidential candidate Jill Stein of the Green Party took to Twitter to invite Sanders to “build the revolution to last outside the rigged two-party system.”
Around 8 p.m. this past Tuesday, just as Ted Cruz was announcing that he would drop out of the race for the Republican nomination, Google recorded a sudden spike in searches for “Libertarian Party.” And two days later, longtime Republican strategist Mary Matalin made national headlines by announcing that she had changed her registration to Libertarian.
As Democrats and Republicans prepare to nominate two historically unpopular candidates, has the moment finally arrived for these third parties to give Americans another choice?
“Third parties tend to be most successful in times of economic concern,” said Brian Brox of the Tulane University department of political science. “When people are feeling economic dislocation, when they’re feeling economic anxiety, that’s when they’re most open to broader possibilities than just the steady state of Republicans and Democrats.”
“This election does seem to be begging for protest votes to be cast,” said Charlie Cook, the Louisiana-born publisher of the highly respected Cook Political Report, in an email to GAMBIT. “Democrats not happy about Hillary Clinton, traditional Republicans finding Trump abhorrent — [they’re] looking for someone to throw a vote to as means of showing their displeasure with their choices.”
To call voters’ dissatisfaction with the major party candidates unprecedented is hardly an exaggeration — in fact, polls show that it is an understatement. Trump tends to be seen favorably by around 30 percent of Americans, and Clinton’s favorability is hovering around 40 (31 and 39 percent respectively in Gallup’s April poll, to be exact), suggesting that at least third of Americans wish they had another candidate. By contrast, in May 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had favorability ratings of around 50 percent each, and in April 2008, Obama and John McCain were both liked by about 60 percent of Americans. As the New York Times wrote, 2016 represents “the first time in at least a quarter-century that majorities of Americans held negative views of both the Democratic and Republican candidates at the same time.”
Although the unpopularity of this year’s presumptive nominees may represent an all-time low, it is also consistent with recent trendlines, perhaps a byproduct of the increasingly public nomination battles, said Ed Chervenak of the University of New Orleans department of political science.
“The trend has been increasing unfavorables for major party candidates for a while,” Chervenak said.
These facts — and this opportunity — are not lost on members of the Libertarian and Green parties, the two biggest “third” parties in the country. Both have already secured access to the ballot in Louisiana, and have active chapters in Orleans Parish. But who are the Libertarians and the Greens, and what do they offer different from the Republicans and Democrats?
Libertarians may represent the cleanest marriage of a single governing philosophy with a political party in American politics. At their core, they advocate for individual liberty in every aspect of life from both the social and economic standpoints.
On social issues, Libertarians often look decidedly liberal through any traditional lens. They advocate for the legalization of drugs and have traditionally supported same-sex marriage rights (partly out of the belief that the government should not be regulating marriage or personal relationships at all), and some see abortion rights as another matter of individual choice. One obvious exception to that apparent social liberalism, however, is their ardent support of the gun-ownership rights — another issue of personal freedom for them.
On economics, however, Libertarians fit into much more conservative patterns — in fact, moreso than many Republicans. They advocate for the reduction or elimination of most government regulations and programs, supporting free trade over tariffs and opposing land-use laws like zoning at a local level, environmental regulation, and even social safety-net programs like Social Security and Medicare. And to redress even obvious social ills that they condemn — from discrimination by private businesses to climate change on a global level — Libertarians prefer market pressure over government intervention, an idea that received a controversial national airing over U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s remarks about opposition to those parts of the Civil Rights Act.
As the torch-bearers of a philosophy, local Libertarians view their most productive work in lobbying for laws that dovetail with their worldview. At their monthly meetings, they offer regular updates on lobbying efforts in Baton Rouge — advocating for the legalization the sale of raw milk directly from farmers, the expansion of medical marijuana, and strengthened gun rights laws. In New Orleans, the Libertarians have recently spoken at the City Council in support of recent laws decriminalizing marijuana as well.
“We were the only political party to support the ordinance, to have anyone there,” said Wendy Adams, who spoke before the City Council on the marijuana issue.
Among the Libertarians’ immediate future goals is furthering the fight against red-light cameras in New Orleans.
Political strategist Mary Matalin has already been rethinking her long relationship with the Republican Party for some time – insisting, for example, during an appearance at Loyola University Institute of Politics that she is a “conservative,” not a “Republican.” Her announcement Thursday on Bloomberg Politics made that affiliation official, though she framed her new registation as a Libertarian more in terms of general frustration with the Republican Party and less about the Trump nomination. When pressed by by the hosts as to when she changed her registration, Matalin said, “Today” – but insisted that she while refuses to vote for Clinton, she simply doesn’t know enough about Trump to offer him her support.
“I’m a Republican in the Jeffersoninan, Madisonian sense. I’m not a Republican for a party, or a person,” Matalin said. “The Libertarian Party continues to represent those Constitutional principals that I agree with.”
The Green Party, in contrast to the Libertarians, is less focused on finding applications of a singular political philosophy and more interested in promoting a wide swath of progressive goals regarding long-term sustainability and social justice (laid out in what it calls its 10 key values). Long associated with environmentalism, Greens are often just as motivated by the fight against economic injustice or mass incarceration, while supporting initiatives that foster diversity in all its forms.
But on many of the individual issues, there are already activist groups in New Orleans who are expertly articulating these problems and their solutions, said Bart Everson, who is organizing the Green Party in New Orleans. What those activist groups lack, however, is the political process to support candidates for office, so the Greens hope to be an umbrella party fielding candidates who support these diverse efforts.
“There’s a ton of groups out there working on those things,” Everson said. “We don’t want to reduplicate their efforts; they’re already doing it better than we can. But the missing piece is the electoral piece, and that’s what we aim to provide.”
Thus, much of the work of the local Greens to date is planning networking with other strongly established progressive groups in New Orleans. The Greens have participated in protests against new oil-drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, and they see the work of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition as a strong logical ally for them, even discussing the possibility of running candidates for sheriff specifically to protest the record of Marlin Gusman.
“At the national level, people are saying the most important thing that the Green Party can do is run Black Lives Matter candidates in local elections,” Everson said — in contrast to the Democrats, whose Presidential candidates struggled to even understand the “Black Lives Matter” concept in the early campaigning.
The Green Party in New Orleans flourished prior to Hurricane Katrina, Everson says, with a membership so large that it required two meetings per month — one general meeting to discuss the issues and priorities, and a coordinating committee to plan specific actions. The diaspora after the storm scattered most of those members across the country, though former Black Panther activist Malik Rahim drew national support for his Green Party bid for Congress against incumbent Bill Jefferson and Republican Joe Cao in 2008.
The party was somewhat dormant in the city for several years, but in 2014, Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein attended the state convention, hosted by Xavier University. She returned the following year for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and hosted a discussion during the Rising Tide conference on organizing a progressive movement. During that discussion, Everson said, a member of the audience asked whether the Greens had a local chapter in New Orleans — and struck by the fact that the answer was “no,” he began organizing monthly meetings soon afterward.
The Libertarians and Greens were the most popular “third” parties in the last 2012 election, with former Gov. Gary Johnson garnering nearly 1.3 million votes for the Libertarians and physician Jill Stein winning nearly half a million votes for the Greens. Johnson and Stein are both running again this year, and both are suing the Commission on Presidential Debates to be included alongside the Republican and Democratic nominees this year.
“Because of the oppression of the two parties, the only way to gain momentum is to have people vote for your candidate,” said Ryan Hargis, a member of both the state Green Party and the recently re-organized Orleans Parish chapter.
Both the Libertarians and the Greens see those debates as key to reaching 5 percent of the popular vote this year, which will make them eligible for federal matching funds for their parties’ campaigns in the next Presidential election in 2020.
“You couldn’t have a better year to be the first year to be on that stage,” said Kirk Coco, a member of the Orleans Parish Libertarians. “I think if you could get on stage, it goes to 5 percent.”
A Monmouth University poll in late March tested Johnson against Clinton and Trump, and found him at 11 percent (even though 76 percent of the respondents did not know who he is) — drawing slightly more support away from Clinton than Trump, but performing best in Republican-leaning states.
“The big thing in this race is going to be the percentages,” said Mike Dodd, chair of the Orleans Parish Libertarian Party.
Libertarians in Louisiana held their state convention in late April, and Adams was selected as the delegate from Orleans Parish to the national convention in Orlando at the end of May — though several other Orleans Parish members will attend as delegates in other capacities. Adams said she is still undecided how she will cast her vote, noting that Johnson has represented the Libertarians well since his nomination in 2012, but there are other appealing options.
“He’s appealing to the mainstream, which is very good when they’re looking at Trump or Hillary,” Adams said. “… It’s hard. You want to look at who is the most Libertarian, and who is going to the best in mainstream America. I haven’t made up my mind.”
New Orleans will host the state Green Party convention on July 30 at Xavier University. The delegates selected there have a similar freedom to vote at the national Green Party convention in Houston as they see fit, though Stein remains a prominent voice in the party.
“It’s the thing that gets people charged up. Every four years, we have opportunity to catch some of that energy,” Everson said of Presidential elections. “Once Hillary gets the [Democratic] nomination, and Sanders encourages his supporters to vote for her, where does all that momentum go? Jill Stein will welcome those voters with open arms. She says she’s a better socialist than Bernie, and a better woman than Hillary.”
In the meantime — despite their profound differences on many policies — the Greens and Libertarians are actively communicating with one another about how to better raise awareness of additional options for voters. In late April, a small contingent of Libertarians actually attended the monthly meeting of the Greens, and they discussed issues of voter registration drives, keeping membership rolls, and training members to speak on bills pending in the state legislature.
“We’ve established that there’s a huge amount of common ground,” Everson said.
“Libertarians have always been strong on the idea that we need competition of ideas,” Dodd agreed. “These ideas don’t need to be silenced by the major two parties, as effectively they have been for so long, so we intend to be working with the Green Party and any other third parties that we happen to come across on ways to help each other get a platform.”
Making the case
Amid Republican and Democratic domination of 20th Century Presidential politics, the occasional rise of third-party candidates has served only as a spoiler. Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party split the Republicans in 1912, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Twelve years later, Robert LaFollette ran as a progressive, splitting the Democrats to give the election to Republican Calvin Coolidge. Segregationists Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and George Wallace of Alabama broke away from the Democrats to run in 1948 and 1968, respectively, but each only had an impact in the South. Even Ross Perot’s independent bid in 1992 is frequently seen as hurting incumbent President George H.W. Bush more than challenger Bill Clinton, enabling Clinton to win with a mere 43 percent of the vote.
Voters typically express their dissatisfaction with the major-party candidates through low turnout, political scientists say. Turning to a third party is much less common, especially when those parties’s candidates lack name recognition.
“What typically happens, if a Democrat is unhappy with the Democratic candidate, they stay home. Same with the Republicans. You don’t see much of a defection rate for the two parties,” Chervenak said. “It’s really hard to vote for someone if you don’t know who they are.”
It is also important not to underestimate the structural ways that American elections favor a two-party system, Chervenak said. Governments where a single representative is elected from each district on a ballot that only allows one choice (unlike a parliamentary election) tend toward the dominance of two parties in a principle so widely observed that it has become known as Duverger’s law after the political scientist who first described it.
“There always seems to be this optimism that a third party will finally take root, and we’ll have more than just two choices,” Chervenak said. “But people are just socialized into identifying with the two parties. Given those kinds of social restraints and structural restraints, it’s hard to see how a third party is going to be successful.”
The concern of wasting one’s vote on a third party candidate unlikely to prevail — or worse, helping the opposite party — has been another traditional barrier to third-party candidates. But in some situations, when a particular election is all but decided in an extremely “blue” or “red” state (like Louisiana), voters who might favor a third party are actually the ones “wasting” their votes if they support a major party over a third party trying to gain a foothold, Brox said.
Non-swing states like Louisiana should be appealing to the third parties for another reason, Brox said — buying advertising for their candidates will be much more affordable and effective than in the states the major parties are targeting.
“To make the case like, ‘Your vote doesn’t matter in an already-decided state. Expand the base of interest. Expand the debate. Vote for a third party to make us part of the future’ – that would be persuasive,” Brox said. “But it’s just going to take a lot of resources to get that message out.”
The best case scenario for the Greens or Libertarians to shoot for the Presidency would be to recruit a major name on the ballot, like Rand Paul for the Libertarians or Bernie Sanders for the Greens — but even in that case, an electoral win would likely be a long shot, Brox said. More realistic — and more in line with what the local party activists are actually doing — is to use this election cycle as a springboard for increased name recognition and party building. A NBC News poll in April found that 16 percent of voters said they plan to vote for a third party if Clinton and Trump are the major-party nominees — more than enough to give both the Greens and Libertarians the 5 percent they hope for. With 750,000 Louisianans already unaffiliated with either Republicans or Democrats (a quarter of registered voters in the state), both parties may find fertile ground in the state.
“They just need a few more voters than they typically get to meet some of these benchmarks,” Brox said. “When they can start having consistent ballot access and better funding through federal matching funds, they can start recruiting better candidates. Absolutely, this is a great year for them to start hitting some of those smaller benchmarks.”
A version of this article was first printed in Gambit.