The US presidential elections are normally seen as a contest between two parties and their nominees. But that isn’t so. There are more in the fray. Gary Johnson of Libertarian Party, Jill Stein of Green Party, and Evan MccMullin, an independent are there with their respective running mates, that is vice presidential nominees.
But who has heard of them? If one did, it was in the initial stages of the campaign, even as the primaries were being fought by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump who appeared to get a cursory attention, like a polite "hello, yes, you too are there on the ballot", and no more.
These two are commonly referred to as 'third party' candidates even if they are from two distinct parties and an independent which should make them the third, the fourth, and the fifth in the fray. But in the race to become the POTUS, you need to be from either of the two parties — Republican and Democratic.
But the scant attention paid to Johnson and Stein, the latter of the same gender as Hillary Clinton, smacks of two things: if you are not from the mainline parties, you don’t count, and the media neglect just makes it unfair. They are not on the level playing field.
Trump got more airtime and acreage of newsprint in the initial stages without paying for advertising — not paid news, happily — because he was outrageous in his views and conducted himself like a participant in the reality shows which had got him noticed long ago. Hillary perhaps had to rustle up the moolah for the advertising to counter the guy.
It is not that it does not happen in India where in many a constituency for either the state Assemblies or Lok Sabha, many figures on the ballot and even lose their deposits. And the media have often dumped such candidates as 'not serious' which is odd because elections are a serious business. The deposits sought are to ensure smaller ballots.
In the US, it has not always been the case that the third-party candidate, or as they say, ‘the other guy’, were far too behind with votes polled in single digit numbers. In 1992 Ross Perot was an Independent candidate and four years later, of the Reform Party secured getting a fifth of all votes but that meant nothing. Candidates polling highest in a state takes all and wins the electoral college.
2016.presidential-candidates.org points out, that was in recent times. In 1856, a ‘spurned’ Democrat was Know-Nothing Party’s candidate and won 21.5 percent of votes and took eight states and queering the pitch for the party that Donald Trump now represents. In 1860, two-third party candidates took away 30 percent of the votes and helped Abraham Lincoln win though he had secured only 39.65 of the votes, ‘the second lowest in history’.
Teddy Roosevelt as a former president was the Progressive Party’s candidate and did well enough to leave the incumbent president, William Taft to a third position.
They do an influential role and in tight races, be the spoiler. Ralph Nadar polled some 3 percent of the votes in 2000 and upset the calculations of Al Gore and George Bush. Bush won in a very tight race. Who knows what Johnson, Stein, and McMullin among them manage this time, with the email issue surrounding Hillary Clinton narrowing the gap between her and Trump.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the three are attracting voters not happy with the two major parties, and its headline brings out the story well: Third Party Candidates Could Have Their Best Election Day in Years. Polls indicated that Johnson could take away some 6 percent, McMullin has “shown strong appeal”, and Stein has something equal to what Nadar pulled in.
According to the WSJ in the same piece, a majority of people “support the idea of having choices beyond the Republican and Democratic tickets, with 57% telling Gallup in September that a third major political party is needed.” That is a huge number indeed. “No independent or third-party candidate has ever won the presidency, though a number have played important supporting roles in elections.”
‘Supporting’ here also means being a spoiler, as well as bring new ideas to the table, which eventually could end up being co-opted by the two major parties. That is, the other guy does have a role, though they do not make headlines.