Third parties get into the swing

JACK BARLOW
Last updated 08:40 07/11/2012

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Santa Claus was running for a while too, but dropped out of the race in late October, urging his supporters to vote for Jill Stein.

When Americans sit down to cast their vote for president, their ballot forms will contain more than just two boxes.

Contrary to popular belief, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are not the only people running for president this year. More than 10 minor parties are in the race too, ranging from conservative isolationists to ones that last had any success in the 1940s. This, as well as a plethora of independents, makes for some long and intriguing ballot forms.

American politics has long revolved around the two-party (Republicans and Democrats) system. However, a considerable number of smaller parties have always been involved too and, at times, they have given the political establishment a bit of a scare.

The last time a candidate made any sort of mark was the Left-wing political activist and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, whose small 2000 campaign became tangled with that year's George W Bush v Al Gore main event in the swing state of Florida. After Bush took out the state by only 537 votes and won the presidency, the Democratic Party heaped scorn on Nader, accusing him of taking away votes that otherwise would have been sent Gore's way.

Still, Nader's national tally was small, at only 2.74 per cent. But third-party candidates have acted more as forces in their own right as opposed to what some would refer to as "spoilers".

The last time a candidate garnered more-than-negligible percentage of the vote was in 1992, with the unlikely run of Texan billionaire Ross Perot.

Running on a wide-ranging platform that was anti-gun control, pro-choice and intent on ending the outsourcing of American jobs, Perot came out of nowhere to end up, for a time, polling higher than that year's established candidates George H W Bush and Bill Clinton - although, as pollster Pew Research Centre noted, he was for a while matched by non-candidate General Norman Schwartzkopf.

He polled as high at 39 per cent although, as the campaign went on, disorganisation set in and his numbers dwindled; still, he ended up with 19 per cent of the popular vote, and is still the last non-major party candidate to take part in a major presidential debate.

Despite his good showing, Perot is not the most successful third-party candidate to run for the presidency. That title goes to a far more established political figure: former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt.

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Roosevelt became president in 1901 on the assassination of William McKinley, and stayed in charge until 1909, after which he handed the presidency over to his protege, William Howard Taft. Things between the two soon soured to such an extent that Roosevelt came out of retirement to contest the 1912 election on his own Bull Moose Party ticket. He failed to win the presidency, but then so did Taft: the two split the Republican vote, handing the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. Rubbing salt into Taft's wounds, Roosevelt even beat him into second place with 27 per cent of the popular vote - still a record.

This year, amid the hodge-podge of minor candidates, three in particular stand out: The Green Party's Jill Stein, Virgil Goode from the Right-wing Constitution Party and, most visibly, Libertarian candidate and ex-New Mexico governor Gary Johnson.

Johnson has the most star power, mainly because of the popularity of libertarianism among young Americans. With libertarian favourite Ron Paul declaring himself out of the race early on, Johnson picked up his slack and has been touring across the United States, enjoying support on university campuses where he often reportedly turns up in jeans and a T-shirt.

Still, despite his popularity, the highest Johnson has polled so far is at 3 per cent; now, with the race coming down to the wire, both he and Stein are sitting around the 1 per cent mark.

Some minor candidates are true political oddballs. Take the Prohibition Party. It turns out that the 1933 repeal of prohibition - which began in 1919, banning the sale of alcohol - did not deter some people from giving up their efforts to keep it going. The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, is still going. At the last election, the party brought in only 643 votes, a far cry from the 270,000 it raised in 1892, or even 1948's respectable 103,000.

This year, its presidential campaign platform is, solely, the 1611 King James Bible. "Should I be elected to the presidency," wrote their candidate Lowell ‘Jack' Fellure, "this Bible will be open on the desk in the White House Oval Office . . . it shall never be closed during my tenure."

Also competing are a range of Socialist parties, an isolationist party, and an array of other Far Left and Far Right groups. The Peace and Freedom Party, founded in 1967 by liberals disaffected with the Democratic Party's support of the Vietnam War, is this year running well-known comedienne Rosanne Barr with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan as her deputy.

Going along with these are a scattered array of independent candidates with names like "Average Joe" Schriner, "Mad Mike" Hughes, and even an enigmatic Floridian by the name of President Emperor Caesar. Santa Claus was running for a while too, but dropped out of the race in late October, urging his supporters to vote for Jill Stein.

David Paleologos of the Suffolk University Political Research Centre, says this year's crop of third-party candidates could be of nuisance value in some states.

"In New Hampshire, Gary Johnson has been polling fairly well, and may have an impact in taking votes away from Mitt Romney," he said.

"But then, it works both ways - votes for Jill Stein take away votes from Barack Obama."

Although there won't be anyone like Ross Perot, who had money to propel his campaign, he says, don't totally discount them just yet.

"In a tight race, if a third party gets half a per cent, and another gets another half a per cent . . . that could make a difference."

Jack Barlow is a New Zealand journalist travelling through the United States.

- Waikato

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