Independent Presidential Candidates 2012: Is the Third Party Over?

This could have been the year for a third-party candidate to make a breakthrough in national politics. Maybe not win the White House, that’s far-fetched in America’s entrenched two-party system, but at least introduce a neglected issue or two into the national conversation.

Grass roots protest movements (think Occupy and the Tea Party) were active on both sides of the political spectrum.

Enthusiasm for President Obama had waned significantly since 2008. Many former supporters were disappointed with his first term. Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney coasted to his party’s presidential nomination as if preordained and never had a fired-up core base of support.

With so many voters mired in debt, unemployed and shrugging their shoulders at their two-party choices, where is 2012’s Ralph Nader or Ross Perot?

MORE: Third Party Voting: Civics in a Minute

In most come as news to most Americans, but there are third-party candidates running in the 2012 presidential cycle.

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson is the Libertarian nominee. Roseanne Barr is making a bid under the Peace and Freedom Party banner. Jill Stein, of the Green Party, rounds out this list of the best-known unknowns. They’re splitting about 2 percent of the vote between them in some polls.

To put that into perspective, Perot took home 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, the most of any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s run under the Bull Moose banner in 1912.

Timothy Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor, says third-party impact all comes down to money and name recognition.

Perot ran again in 1996 and garnered more than 8 percent of the popular vote.

Even 2000 spoiler Ralph Nader took home more than the current crop of third-party candidates combined. He claimed 2.74 percent of the popular vote 12 years ago. Moreover, Perot and Nader ran before Twitter, YouTube and online fundraising made it easier for candidates of any stripe to connect with potential voters.

Timothy Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor, says third-party impact all comes down to money and name recognition.

In Perot’s case, he tells TakePart, “Having the money behind him allowed him to make a big splash.”

For instance, Perot spent $63.5 million of his vast fortune on his first run.

Nader, meanwhile, was well known for his history of consumer advocacy, a notoriety that helped him generate support for his candidacy.

None of the current crop of third-party candidates has a comparable cachet. Barr is well known, but after leaving Hollywood to become a Hawaiian nut farmer, she isn’t considered a credible candidate.

Libertarian nominee Johnson hasn’t caught fire.

As for the Greens’ Stein, well, she tried to make her mark with a $110,000 ad buy back in August. Her candidacy hasn’t gained momentum since. To be fair, Obama and Romney have shelled out about $883.8 million in ad spending to date; so Stein’s buy was like sneezing into a hurricane.

(Barr and Randall Terry, an anti-abortion, Independent presidential candidate, have made sporadic buys, but nothing close to Stein’s, according to Smart Media Group, a media buying firm based in Virginia). 

Texas Congressman Ron Paul (R) is one candidate who might have captured the media spotlight.

He had significant support in Iowa, the lead off caucus state, according to Hagle. But after losing to Romney in the GOP primary, “Paul decided to work through the Republican Party” and not make an independent bid.

Paul’s Libertarian supporters—along with cable news commentators—have not gravitated to Johnson.

Some activists have toyed with the idea of a moderate third party candidate entering the race, but Hagle believes that prospect is even more doomed than making a Green Party run.

“It’s hard to be passionate when you’re in the middle,” says Hagle.

Though shut out of the four presidential and vice presidential debates, third-party candidates have organized their own forums.

Free and Equal Elections Foundation, a non-profit group promoting ballot access for third-party candidates, hosted an October 23 debate in Chicago, which was moderated by broadcaster Larry King.

In case you, like the vast majority of the country’s media consumers, missed the October 23 discussion, Free and Equal Elections Foundation plans to stage another, with Stein, Johnson, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and former Virginia Representative Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, on October 30 in Washington.

For showtimes broadcast URLs, consult the Free and Equal Elections website.

Are two political parties enough to guarantee a robust democracy? Leave thoughts and solutions in COMMENTS.

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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.