Can Independent Candidates Influence Elections?

Given the choice between more than two options, Americans may be able to have their vote reflect what they believe.

By Laura Rice & David BrownSeptember 28, 2016 1:07 pm,

After Monday’s presidential debate there’s a national consensus around a candidate. That’s what Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson says in his interview with the Standard about why he is the best man for the job.

“I agree with Donald Trump that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be president and I agree with Donald Trump that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be president,” Johnson says.

On the ballot in all 50 states, Johnson speaks to the power of a third-party candidate to give Americans another option. In an op-ed published this week, Johnson says the American political system isn’t as polarized as it seems. Johnson says both Republicans and Democrats can find common ground behind issues that he has strongly promoted, like global warming.

“I do believe climate change is man-caused,” he says. “I do believe in a free-market approach to reducing CO2. You and I, as consumers, we’re demanding less carbon emission and we’re getting it, as evidenced by the bankruptcy of coal.”

He’s mixing a little free-market with the causes of those who believe in man-made global warming.

The point that Johnson and other independents are making is that the parameters of our political discussion have become twisted by our collective focus on process: the horse race.

It’s a false choice, argues independent candidate Evan McMullin. In his interview with the Standard at the Texas Tribune Festival, he said we need to cast votes for “leaders who we actually want to see in office.”

“We continue to think of ourselves as having to make the lesser-of-two-evils decision over and over again,” McMullin says. “That’s what the politicians sell us, that’s what the party sells us.”

He says emphasis on the two-party system lowers standards for politicians and urges voters elect leaders who they actually want to see in office.

“Our civic engagement needs to be much greater,” McMullin says.

The last time a third-party presidential candidate had an impact in a general election was Ralph Nader’s run in 2000. Many said his campaign hurt Al Gore’s chances of winning the race to the White House outright. But most voters have mixed feelings about how much impact a third-party candidate can have, other than as a spoiler.

Jill Stein says American’s should put their values behind their vote for democracy to work. “People are hungering for more choices but the American political system excels at suppressing the voices of opposition,” Stein says in a campaign video.

With the media focus on two-party system campaigns, it’s unclear how America will respond to a third-party candidates like Johnson this fall and in future elections.

With few exceptions – President Teddy Roosevelt, in particular – third-party candidates haven’t historically had much success in the American system. So what needs to change?