By Rachel Blevins
With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominees of the two major parties, many constituents are considering voting for a third-party candidate, raising the question of the effect independent parties will have on the 2016 election.
Daniel Zolnikov, a Republican state representative in Montana, said that while there may be support for an independent party among individuals, its success requires support at city, county and state levels. Money is also a large factor in determining a party’s success, he added.
“Without money, they can’t get their message out, and their candidates will never be looked upon as realistic, even in these times where people hate the traditional parties,” Zolnikov said. “I don’t think it’s going to be big enough. You just can’t beat the money game that’s behind the two major parties, in my opinion.”
Dustin Howard, a contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government, said that although there has been a demonstrable decline in the credibility of both major parties, history has shown that a great political tumult must be present for a third-party challenger to win the election.
“The last successful third-party candidate was Abraham Lincoln, and it took a contentious four-way race and a civil war to upset the two-party duopoly,” Howard said. “In reality, unless America more or less divides among four candidates, a third candidate will typically eliminate themselves, as well as the candidate they rob of support.”
Howard said third parties will face obstacles in 2016 because on the Republican side, many independent voters have already participated in the primary process. Also, it is difficult for candidates to gain access to ballots in all states.
“While both presumptive nominees enjoy significant support, there will clearly be a number of disaffected voters in each party,” Howard said. “This provides a slender opportunity for a viable third party run. Third parties tend to empower the people they trust the least, at the expense of the more tolerable option.”
Timothy Nokken, graduate studies director in Texas Tech’s Department of Political Science, said he sees a lot of discontent among voters in regard to the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees but does not think it will be enough to make a difference.
“There’s always a bit of discontent with the two major parties, and this year in particular, I think that there’s added discontent based on the fact that the two candidates for the major parties draw a lot of negative attitudes from people,” Nokken said. “But third parties rarely make a difference. You might see a slight blip in the increase in votes for the Libertarian Party, especially among some Republicans who don’t like Donald Trump,but couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton.”
The Libertarian Party is the largest third party, which currently has ballot access in 32 states. According to a Monmouth University poll released in March, presumptive Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson polled at 11 percent against Trump and Clinton.
Joe Castner, chairman of the Lubbock County branch of the Libertarian Party of Texas, said he switched from being a Republican to a Libertarian in 2008, after he noticed “a continuing and growing absence of what the Republican Party once stood for,” in terms of limited government.
“There always has been a third option, but some people have thought that it hasn’t been a viable third option,” Castner said. “But in this election cycle, there are enough disenfranchised voters that the Libertarian Party can have an impact in a way that it never has before.”
Zolnikov is a liberty-minded Republican who is currently running for a third session as a state representative in Montana. He said several months of knocking on doors and talking to voters has reminded him that the disenfranchisement within the Republican Party has been building up for years.
“When I first ran, people wanted something that was not politics—even four years ago—here’s a young person that had no experience in much of anything, and they voted for me because they were already disenfranchised,” Zolnikov said. “People want something different. The writing has been on the walls for years; it just took Trump to shake things up for them to realize it.”
Nokken said many members of the Republican establishment would rather see Republicans vote for the Libertarian nominee for president, as long as they then vote for Republican candidates for the House and the Senate.
“Clearly, if you want to run for office to win, running with a major party’s label is always better,” Nokken said. “If you just take a look at Congress, there are very few third-party people in government, very few independents. One of the things people do is they run with one of the major parties because they have a better chance of winning.”
Howard said in some ways, the rise of Donald Trump could be seen as a “third-party coup” within the Republican Party because his views do not line up with conventional Republican policies.
“The phenomenon we are seeing is that major parties themselves evolve, and absorb third party notions to remain viable, leaving them as a vehicle to ideas popularized by third-party candidates,” Howard said. “The emergence of Sanders, a democratic socialist, is evidence of this as well.”
Castner said he would not recommend voting for the “lesser of two evils,” just to take a vote away from the candidate in the opposing party, because it has not worked out in the past.
“When voting for the lesser of two evils, you’re always going to get evil, and sometimes even so, you are not going to get the evil that you voted for,” Castner said. “But I can go to bed every night with a clean conscience that I voted for who I truly thought was the person for the job and the person that I would want to lead me, and also my family.”