Is the Stage Set For a Third-Party Presidential Candidate?

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With President Obama’s approval rating hovering around 40 percent and Republican presidential primary voters seemingly undecided about who should be their front-runner, the stage may seem set for an alternative to the mainstream partisans.

But despite this dissatisfaction with the current options, when given the choice of a third-party candidate or one who is nominated independently of the two-party system, voters are still more likely flock to the traditional Democratic or Republican candidates.

“There is a lot more historical precedent for challengers from the main party winning than third parties doing a lot better,” said Jonathan Ladd, an assistant government professor at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. “We have had incumbents in the past who were a good deal less popular than Obama and, even then, third-party challengers haven’t been ultimately successful.”

This tendency of Americans to stick with their mainstream parties may not be their fault, though, Ladd said.

“The way the system is set up, it naturally leans towards two dominant parties,” said Wes Benedict, executive director of the Libertarian Party. “It’s just hard for someone who is not already in power to create an organization that gets into power.”

Unlike many other democracies, America is a winner-takes-all system. In almost every state, whichever candidate gets the most votes wins every one of the state’s electoral votes, rather than the delegates being split up proportionately to the top group of vote-getters.

This creates “an incentive to not want to waste your vote,” Ladd said, adding that there is often “inherent skepticism” of third-party candidates.

Unlike past election cycles, that skepticism has seeped into mainstream politics, as well.

An ABC/Washington Post poll in October found that 68 percent of voters are unhappy with the current government and 60 percent said they support the idea of an independent candidate running against the Democrat and Republican nominee.

“Frustration is the name of the game for candidates, and for students, and for workers, and for seniors and for homeowners. We are all facing a really difficult and rocky road ahead,” said Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate. That “makes it all the more important for us to have alternatives.”

Green Party spokesman Mark Dunlea said the frustration has manifested itself in the Occupy Wall Street movement and the polls that show Congress has a lowest-ever approval rating of less than 10 percent.

“People are definitely fed up,” he said. “Am I predicting a victory for the Green Party this year? It’s certainly still a long shot, but less this year than in past years.”

Much of Americans’ frustration stems from the gridlock currently plaguing the political process, Ladd said. That is precisely why a group called Americans Elect has launched a campaign to put a party-free candidate on the ballot in every state in 2012.

“We are not a third party,” said Elliot Ackerman, the group’s chief operating officer. “The country has enough special interests and goofy ideologies out there. We are a second way to nominate our leaders.”

By gathering enough petition signatures, the group has already secured a spot on the ballot in nine states. Ackerman said that number will jump to 28 by the end of the year and before November 2012, he said the group will have secured the remaining 22 states.

But Americans Elect does not even have a candidate yet. That prospective candidate will be chosen through an online nominating process that is open to any registered voter who signs up through the group’s website to be an Americans Elect delegate.

So far, Ackerman said about 20 people have privately expressed interest in running for the Americans Elect nomination, although he would not disclose who the prospective nominees are.

“2012 is going to be a three-horse race,” Ackerman said. “2012 is once again the change election, but the change is not a new person, the change is a new way to pick our leaders.”

However, if an outside-the-mainstream candidate were to win the White House, Ladd argued, rather than fixing the gridlock in Washington, they could actually make it worse.

“Parties in Congress will still really disagree and the institution will still be set up with lots of veto points to block action,” Ladd said “It’s hard for Obama to get Democrats to agree on one program and vote for his proposals. I think it would be harder for a third-party candidate to take convince members of Congress to take unpopular votes for them.”