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The Systemic Suppression of Third Parties in American Politics

The Systemic Suppression of Third Parties in American Politics

Americans know our two-party system is broken. In March 2019, an NBC/WSJ poll found out that most voters want a third-party. Nearly 40% of Americans felt that a third political party would help fix the political system, and another 47% thought that the country's two-party system needs improvements. Moreover, 38% of respondents in the poll felt that the country needs a third party. In 2020's heated election, Jo Jorgensen could bring a balance if given a voice on the presidential debate stage. 

Historical Overview of the Libertarian Party in Presidential Elections and Debates

The Libertarian Party, perhaps the most popular third-party in recent years, was officially formed on December 11, 1971, in Colorado Springs, CO. The party's original platform originated from concerns regarding the Nixon Administration, the Vietnam War, and conscription. In the 2020's election, Jo Jorgensen has a platform that many Americans might agree with, including:

  • Dealing with a skyrocketing national debt and eliminating shutdowns that hinder employment.
  • Eliminating government barriers that would allow clean energy to thrive.
  • Reducing federal spending and decreasing the tax liability for the average American.
  • Keeping education in the hands of parents, teachers, and local school authorities.

The Libertarian Party believes in small government, and many issues, including the ones above, should be heard by Americans in presidential debates.

In recent years, the Libertarian Party has performed exceptionally well in presidential elections, especially in 2012 and 2016. Generally speaking, the Libertarian Party has received less than 5% of the popular vote in presidential elections. In 2012, the Gary Johnson/Jim Gray ticket received 1,275,923 votes, .99% of the popular vote, while in 2016, the Gary Johnson/William Weld ticket received 4,489,233 votes, which was 3.29% of the total popular vote. This trend shows that the Libertarian Party has the attention of many voters in elections and that debate exposure could influence future elections. In a hopeful future, third-party inclusion in presidential debates might even shape the course of presidential elections. 

What Jo Jorgensen Brings to the Table

Jo Jorgensen is fully qualified to participate in the 2020 election and has impeccable credentials if elected president. Her qualifications and skills include:

  • A Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Clemson University.
  • Working for IBM as a marketing representative and running her own software business in the early 80s. 
  • The Greenville News praised an impeccable debate in 1992 for South Carolina's 4th Congressional District as a balance between the Democratic and Republican Candidates.

Jo Jorgensen believes that "government is too big, bossy, too noisy, too intrusive…" according to Fox Carolina. But most importantly, the big government usually hurts the people that it is trying to help. Those are points that resonate with many Americans, and Americans should hear this during a presidential debate.  

Why Are Americans Frustrated With a Two-Party System?

Many Americans are frustrated with the two-party system and often feel during an election that they have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Both parties are shifting further to the right and left, while most Americans are ideologically in the middle. Also, both parties are becoming too inflexible and unresponsive to demographic changes.

According to the Washington Post, for the first time in history, there were more registered independents in the United States than registered Republicans. According to Ballot Access News data, 29.09 percent of voters were registered as independent in February 2020, while 28.87 percent of voters registered as Republican. While some voters may have registered as an independent for various reasons, many people register as independent because they feel that the two-party system does not represent their interest. 

The number of voters registered as either Democrat or Republican has declined in recent years. In 2008, 43.62% and 30.72% of voters were registered as Democrat or Republican, respectively. Those numbers fell to 39.66% and 29.09%, respectively, in February of 2020. Voters registering as independent has increased from 23.15% to 29.09% between 2004 and 2020, showing that more voters might better connect with a third-party candidate on essential issues. 

The Power Of the Presidential Debates

Presidential debates tend to increase voter knowledge and increase voter awareness of the challenger. Generally speaking, the first presidential debate of an election season has the most considerable impact on voters. Here are some instances where a presidential debate had an impact on the course of the election:

  • In 2008, the Obama-McCain race featured debates that played out mainly on non-mainstream media sources, like social media.
  • Gerald Ford's lack of knowledge on Eastern Europe showed in the 1976 presidential election, potentially showing voters his lack of knowledge on foreign policy issues.
  • Many people also remember George H.W. Bush looking at his watch and Al Gore sighing during the 1992 and 2000 presidential elections, respectively.

Large numbers of people also watch presidential debates. In 2016, the Clinton-Trump debates attracted a large number of people. The first debate drew 84 million viewers, while the second and third debates drew 66.5 million and 71.6 million people.

According to Pew Research, the presidential debates are also constructive for voters when they want to make up their minds. In the 2012 debates, 29% of people said that the debates were constructive. In 2016, 25% of people found the presidential debates productive when deciding which candidates best represented the individual voter's issues.

The research and past debates show that, while debates won't necessarily make or break an election, voters tend to pay attention and that the first debate is always the most important. Voters also tend to pay very close attention to the challenger, and a third-party challenger to an incumbent could do more to educate voters. 

Why Don't Third-Party Candidates Appear on Presidential Debates?

If we want to understand the power of presidential debates for third-party candidates, let's look at Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election. Ralph Nader, as the Green Party nominee for president, spoke to large numbers across the country. He said that he could have reached more people "by 50-fold" than he did in any speaking engagement in one debate. So, if a presidential candidate can contact millions of people in a debate, why are they excluded from presidential elections?

Generally speaking, third-party candidates do not appear on presidential elections thanks to an organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates. In 1985, the National Commission on Elections suggested that the two major political parties control presidential debates' sponsorship, resulting in the founding of the CPD in 1987. Since 1987, the CPD has sponsored the presidential debates. 

In 2000, the CPD made it even harder for third-party candidates to appear on a presidential debate; a candidate must have at least 15% support in various national polls to be included in a presidential debate. Third-party candidates also face a challenge in making it on the presidential ballot because of a patchwork of ballot access laws. There are three ways that an individual may become a presidential candidate on a ballot, by either seeking the nomination of a state-recognized political party, petitioning to have their name on the ballot, or running as a write-in candidate. The very spirit of ballot access laws supports a two-party framework, making it difficult for voters to support a third-candidate party, making it harder for that third-party candidate to receive the 15% support level required to appear on a presidential debate. 

Campaign Fundraising for Third-Party Candidates

The exclusion of third-party candidates from presidential debates could also impede their ability to raise funds during the crucial phase of an election. Also, the presidential debates could be an opportunity for third-party candidates to have their issues heard by the American people since Democratic and Republican candidates have the potential to raise more funds. Jo Jorgensen has raised roughly $1.9 million for her campaign, whereas Trump and Biden have raised $594 million and $702 million for their respective campaigns. 

Access to the debates could potentially help a third-party candidate receive more media exposure because mainstream candidates have more financial capital access. 

What Does the Future Look Like for Third-Party Candidates?

The future looks somewhat hopeful for third-party candidates wanting their voice heard on the presidential debates. More and more Americans register as independent, and voters are becoming more educated on third-party platform issues. However, courts are continuing to support the two-party framework and the debate structure, which discourages third-party candidates. A recent lawsuit filed by "Level the Playing Field," an advocacy group for third-party candidates, was decided in favor of the FEC. The decision included an unfavorable opinion for third-party candidates: "There is no legal requirement the commission make it easier for independent candidates to run for the president of the United States." Until that attitude changes in the United States, third-party candidates can still influence the opinions of voters. However, they will always be at the mercy of an unbalanced two-party system.