In a highly polarized electorate, there’s not a lot of room for third-party candidates to make a strong showing. Still, minor parties did see some bright spots on Tuesday.
Maine elected an independent to the Senate, former Gov. Angus King, while Vermont re-elected its independent senator, Bernard Sanders.
Both those victories may have been “idiosyncratic,” says Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political scientist, having more to do with the personal popularity of the candidates than pointing to any wider desire for independent candidates.
In fact, Covington argues, there are fewer third-party candidates who are capable of winning 2 or more percent of the vote than there have been at earlier points in American history.
Americans Elect, a high-profile effort to nominate a candidate online, managed to win a place on the ballot in a majority of states this year, but then failed to field a candidate.
Still, minor-party candidates had their effects this year — if only as spoilers. Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee. Johnson carried 42,000 votes in Florida — nearly as much as President Obama’s margin in the state, according to incomplete, unofficial returns.
“If it came down to Florida, then we might talk about Gary Johnson as the next Ralph Nader,” Covington says, referring to the Green Party nominee in 2000, who helped cost Democrat Al Gore the election that year. “But it looks like Florida’s going to be moot at this point.”
Libertarian nominees also drew votes in Senate races where Republican candidates proved unsatisfactory even to many Republican voters. The Libertarian candidates in both Indiana and Missouri drew about 6 percent of the Senate vote.
“I have to wonder how many Republicans voted for [Libertarian Jonathan Dine] instead of for Todd Akin without knowing any details about him,” says University of Missouri political scientist Marvin Overby. “Add his numbers to Akin’s and you are closer to where other statewide Republicans are.”
Libertarians can cheer the fact that their party gained qualified party status, or a guaranteed spot on the ballot, in five additional states.
“I’m pretty sure Gary Johnson will get 1 percent, which is sort of modest, but it will be tied with the previous best Libertarian setting,” says Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News.
Minor parties in total appear on track to carry just under 2 percent of the national vote.
It’s too early to tell how well minor-party candidates will fare further down the ballot, given the slowness of returns for state legislative contests. But Winger predicts the Green Party and other parties will pick up a handful of seats in New England and a few Western states.
In general, though, despite regular calls for voices not beholden to the Democratic or Republican parties, minor-party candidates aren’t drawing big numbers in big races.
“It’s because the [presidential] election is so close,” Winger says. “The minor parties will have to take their showings from other races.”