What do Virgil Goode, Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson and Gary Johnson have in common with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? You will be excused if you draw a blank. It’s a question that confounds most Americans. And here’s the answer: They’re all running for the job of President of the United States of America.
So-called third party candidates have traditionally struggled to make a mark on America’s political firmament, which is dominated by two parties: Republican and Democratic. As it turns out, the 2012 election is no exception.
Third party candidates have a more pronounced impact in close races, like the one between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Ralph Nader, the Green Party’s presidential nominee, drew voters away from Mr. Gore in New Hampshire and Florida costing the Democrat the election.
The influence of third parties in this election has been somewhat limited, said Peter Hart, who heads Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a leading survey research firm. “In 2000, Nader played a major role even with just 1 percent, and [Ross] Perot in 1992 played a pivotal role,” said Mr. Hart. Mr. Perot, a wealthy Texas businessman, ran as a third-party candidate in 1992 and was credited with attracting George H.W. Bush’s voters, thereby handing the election to Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
This year, Mr. Goode, a former Republican congressman and the Constitution Party’s presidential candidate, could steal conservative voters from Mr. Romney in Virginia, a key battleground state. Mr. Goode has vowed to promote jobs for Americans and balance the federal budget. The Romney campaign has shrugged off the harm Mr. Goode can do to its candidate in Virginia, but the state’s governor, Bob McDonnell, is taking no chances. He has warned Republican voters that a vote for Mr. Goode will hurt Mr. Romney.
In New Hampshire, Mr. Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate and former Republican governor of New Mexico, could hurt Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama. Mr. Johnson says that if he becomes president he will shut down the IRS and get the U.S. out of Afghanistan. In Colorado, Mr. Johnson’s support for legalising marijuana could hurt Mr. Obama among young voters. “Gary Johnson has some name recognition, but really it is an invisible campaign unless you’re a Libertarian,” said Brian Gaines, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Dr. Stein, the Green Party nominee, unsuccessfully ran against Mr. Romney for the job of governor of Massachusetts in 2002. She promises to create 25 million green jobs, relieve student loans, and cut the defence budget.
Third party candidates have been conspicuous by their absence from the national political arena. They finally got their chance to debate each other in Chicago in October, but none of them have scored higher than single digits in polls among likely voters.
“Third parties cannot win elections in the U.S. because of the way that we structure elections,” said David King, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
So then why do these candidates enter the fray when they clearly do not stand a shot at winning?
“They can bring important issues to the nation’s attention, and they can be ‘spoilers,’” said Mr. King. He suggests that Mr. Johnson could be a spoiler in the race this year. “He might make a difference in New Hampshire and in Colorado – though the odds of that are not good. Gary Johnson’s vote would come out of Governor Romney’s support, so Romney has the most to lose,” said Mr. King.
Mr. Gaines said third party candidates hope that people will hear their ideas and convert to their cause. “A lot of the benefit in the end is really expressive... it’s about taking some pleasure in being part of a team that has a set of ideas,” he said.
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print and also, earlier, in this space