Outside Looking In: Views of Third Party and Independent Candidates

Analysis by Paul S. Herrnson and Ron Faucheux

Originally published in Campaigns & Elections magazine, August 1999 issue.

The recent elections of Reform Party candidate - now governor - Jesse Ventura of Minnesota and Green Party candidate - now state legislator - Audie Bock of California, have highlighted the roles of third party and independent candidates in American politics. However, the successes of these two giants of minor party politics contrast with the political experiences of most candidates who are listed on the ballot without a "D" or an "R" next to their names.

With few exceptions, third party and Independent candidates usually fail in their quest to hold office. Most lose in the general election, a small number lose in competitive primaries, and many fail to get as far as meeting the requirements to get on the ballot and thus are shut out of competition.

Many third party and Independent candidates and their supporters regularly complain about various aspects of the campaign system. They believe that the process is so severely biased against them that they are automatically pushed to the periphery of elections. Nevertheless, these candidates can play important roles in raising issues, mobilizing new voters, introducing campaign innovations and tilting elections from one major party candidate to another - even when they don't win. Of course, a small number of them attract enough voter support to win.

Just as it is important to be fully aware of the hurdles that minor party contenders need to jump, it is important to learn about their unique perspective on the campaign process.

Stacked Deck

Laws governing most elections are either specifically designed to limit the prospects for third party and Independent candidates or to work to the advantage of the two major parties. The winner-take-all system of counting ballots, for example, does little to encourage a party that perpetually comes in third or fourth place to repeatedly contest elections, whereas proportional representation systems, which are widely used in other industrialized democracies, do.

Similarly, ballot access requirements make it difficult to run in some states. Third party candidates for the U.S. Senate in Florida, for example, need to gather almost 200,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, whereas their counterparts in New Jersey need to gather only 800. Campaign finance laws that favor incumbents or competitive challengers and open-seat contestants, most of whom belong to one of the two major parties, also decidedly work against the prospects of third party candidates. Contribution limits are especially harmful to these candidates because they do not have large donor pools from which to raise significant funds. Election laws are not the only obstacles. The media is often hostile to third party and Independent candidacies. They focus on the most "electable" candidates - almost always Democrats and Republicans - to the detriment of all others. When minor party candidates attract media coverage, it is usually distorted and contemptuous. One need not look any further back than the last presidential race for evidence of this. During that election, The Washington Post featured a story titled "There's the Ticket... A Selection of Running Mates for Ross Perot" that listed Binti, the gorilla who rescued a toddler who had fallen into her cage, as their first choice to share the Reform Party's ticket. The Post's picks for other potential running mates included Prince Charles and Jack Kevorkian. With media coverage like this, there is little reason to wonder why many third party and Independent candidates feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of electoral politics: They "get no respect."

Despite the fact that some notable minor party or Independent candidates have won races from governor of Minnesota and Maine to the U.S. House from Vermont to seats in state legislatures and local governmental bodies, most voters play the role of unnamed co-conspirators in elections that are hostile to them. Many voters simply ignore these contestants by accepting at face value the idea that they are inconsequential, which is typically propagated by the media, Democratic and Republican Party spokespersons and most political consultants. Others buy into the argument that a vote for one of these candidates is a "waste" or - even worse - that casting their ballot for one of those contestants is the equivalent of voting for the major party candidate with whom they least agree.

Finally, major party candidates do their best to marginalize minor party opponents when they feel threatened by them. Democrats and Republicans have been known to exclude these candidates from debates, ridicule them and treat them as sideshows. Often, when a third party or Independent candidate homes in on a popular policy issue, a major-party opponent co-opts it as his or her own.

The Decision to Run

There are many factors in the decision to seek public office. The financial demands weigh heavily on all candidates, but they have a particularly big impact on third party and Independent contestants. Eighty-seven percent of these candidates, as opposed to the 80 percent of the major party candidates surveyed, believe that the cost of campaigning discourages good, qualified people from running for office.

Sixty-three percent of them believe that press scrutiny into the private lives of public officials discourages good, qualified candidates from running for office, which is much less than the 81 percent of major party candidates who share that view.

Not surprisingly, third party and Independent candidates raise and spend substantially less money than do their major party competitors. Only 4 percent of minor party candidates surveyed spent more than $25,000, as opposed to 35 percent of all major party candidates.

Third party and Independent candidates also raised their money from different sources than did Democratic and Republican contestants. The greatest difference is that federal and state candidates in the former group raised an average of 56 percent of their resources from personal funds and loans, a much higher proportion of self-funders than among Democrats or Republicans (20 percent). Individuals and interest groups, including political action committees, were also significantly more likely to support major party candidates. It is interesting to note that both minor and major party candidates drew roughly similar portions of their funds from party committees (19 percent) and public funding (2 percent). Third party and Independent candidates were found to spend considerably less time raising money than major party competitors. Only 21 percent of all minor party candidates devote more than 10 percent of their campaign schedule to fundraising, as opposed to 60 percent of major party candidates.

Making Due with Less

Minor party candidates for congressional, state legislative and statewide offices surveyed assembled largely amateur campaign organizations. They are much less professional than those organized by the two major parties' nominees. Major party candidates are 25 times more likely to use a paid professional to handle their direct mail, 15 times more likely to hire a professional pollster and almost five times more likely to enlist a consultant to produce campaign ads.

Differences in the resources and motivation influence the strategies and communications employed by campaigns. Democrats and Republicans tend to be pragmatic, focusing their efforts on blocs of voters who can be fashioned into a winning coalition. Sixty-two percent of all major party-candidates used geodemographic targeting, choosing to contact voters on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or occupation. The remainder focused on single-issue voters, such as environmentalists or those on either side of the abortion rights debate.

The targeting strategies of non-major party candidates provide almost a mirror image. The Libertarian, Green, U.S. Taxpayer, Right-to-Life, Natural Law and Reform parties are organized to advance a specific cause or ideology. Six out of 10 of their candidates focused on single-issue voters and 39 percent used geodemographics as a targeting guide. Major party candidates are more likely to rely on capital-intensive campaign techniques, such as direct mail and mass media advertising. Non-major party candidates rely more on debates, forums, literature drops, billboards and yard signs.

Sharp Contrasts

Minor party and Independent candidates' financial disadvantages are compounded by their inability to attract earned media. Only 2 percent of these candidates reported that media coverage of the election favored them, 75 percent maintained that it favored their opponent's campaign and 23 percent believed it was fair to all of the candidates.

These views contrast sharply with those of major party contestants, of whom 9 percent said they were favored by the media, 37 percent said it favored their opponent and 54 percent said it was fair to all.

The candidates' perceptions reflect press biases against minor parties as well as the fact that only one in 10 third party and Independent party candidates reported receiving most of the newspaper endorsements made in their race, whereas slightly more than half of the major party candidates did.

Given their lack of money and press attention, it should come as little surprise that less than one-quarter of all third party and Independent candidates believed they were able to set the agenda in their race. Approximately 22 percent thought an opponent set the agenda, and slightly fewer believe that both candidates influenced it.

Democratic and Republican candidates, however, felt they had the power to exercise more control over the focus of the campaign. More than half believed they set the agenda, almost two out of 10 said that control over the agenda was competitive, and less than 5 percent thought that an opponent set it.

One-quarter of all candidates thought that a party or outside advocacy group set the agenda. More minor party players (one-third) held this view than major party players (one-fifth).

Candidates as Skeptics

Most candidates view the American electorate's knowledge of major policy issues with skepticism: over two-thirds say voters are either very poorly or somewhat poorly informed. Third party and Independent candidates are almost twice as likely to consider voters to be very poorly informed and three times less likely to consider voters very well informed or somewhat informed.

This skepticism may influence what candidates view as appropriate behavior in elections. Seven in 10 of all federal and state candidates polled said it is appropriate to publicly raise an opponent's failure to pay child support or alimony as a campaign issue, 66 percent believed it was appropriate to discuss an opponent's failure to pay back taxes and 60 percent maintained it was OK to raise a documented allegation of sexual harassment or a DWI (drunken driving) conviction.

Between 42 percent and 48 percent of all candidates believed it was acceptable to publicize the fact that an opponent had employed an illegal immigrant as a household worker, recently declared bankruptcy, or committed spousal abuse or infidelity. Approximately 20 percent felt it was acceptable to discuss a youthful indiscretion or a previously unpublicized homosexual relationship. Eight percent or less considered it acceptable to focus on unflattering aspects of an opponent's personal characteristics, raise an unproven allegation from a lawsuit, use negative advertising to decrease voter turnout, make an allegation against an opponent's family, or make statements that are factually untrue.

Third party and Independent candidates are more likely to maintain that it is appropriate to inject into the campaign allegations of spousal abuse or infidelity, a recent bankruptcy, a DWI conviction or an unproven allegation from a lawsuit, reflecting a greater willingness to make an rival's personal foibles an election issue.

Explaining the Outcome

Third party and Independent candidates' interpretations of the factors that contributed to the outcomes of their elections largely reflect their financial situations and assessments of the media. Both sets of candidates considered the amount of money spent on campaigning important, but 73 percent of the third party and Independent candidates thought that money was very important, whereas only 45 percent of the major party candidates held that view. Similarly, more than three-fourths of all candidates considered the news coverage of the campaign to be somewhat or very important in determining the election outcome, but 53 percent of the third party and Independent candidates and only 30 percent of the major party candidates considered news coverage to be very important. Though more than two-thirds of all candidates considered incumbency to be an important determinant of election outcomes, more non-major party candidates considered it to have been very important than did major party candidates. The differences between differing assessments of the impact of their public records, policy issues, campaign advertisements, endorsements, and other factors that are commonly discussed in connection with election outcomes pale next to these other factors.

Campaign Reform

Reform advocates have been pushing to change various aspects of election campaigns for decades. While many of these proposals have been widely publicized, little is known about how candidates feel about various reform proposals. When asked their views of the current campaign finance system, two-thirds of all federal and state candidates surveyed agreed with one of these two statements: It's broken and needs to be fixed (30 percent) and It has problems and needs to be changed (37 percent). Twenty-six percent felt it has problems but is basically sound and only 6 percent said that the campaign finance system is OK the way it is and shouldn't be changed. Third party and Independent candidates were even more critical, with nearly eight out of 10 selecting a pro-change option. Many were particularly critical of campaign contribution limits. One-third of all federal and state candidates surveyed, but nearly half the third party and Independent candidates, believe that donation caps have made the political system worse. Candidates have also expressed reservations about the Motor Voter Law. Two-thirds of all federal and state candidates polled felt that it has failed to encourage more people to vote, and 39 percent thought it has led to a significantly greater instance of voter fraud. Minor party federal and state candidates were more likely to believe that motor voter encouraged fraud than were major party contestants (40 vs. 30 percent, respectively). Perhaps the most negative finding about motor voter is that less than 14 percent of all federal and state candidates interviewed said that it had encouraged them to focus more of their campaign resources on newly registered voters. motor voter may have expanded the pool of potential voters, but it did little to encourage many major or third party and Independent candidates to try to mobilize these individuals.

Not surprisingly, candidates offered varying degrees of support for reforms that would make it easier to vote. The biggest differences were that more third party and Independent candidates than major party candidates favored election day registration, early voting, and easier absentee voting. Two-thirds of all federal and state candidates surveyed thought that making it easier to cast absentee ballots was a good idea, 53 percent supported adopting early or multiday voting procedures, and 47 percent favored voting by mail. Only 38 percent supported the idea of election day voter registration.

Candidates also backed a range of other changes. More than 90 percent of all federal and state candidates advocated more media coverage of issues, 86 percent desired more candidate debates, 69 percent wanted full and instant disclosure of all finances, 66 percent voiced support for giving candidates free media time or postage, 59 percent advocated outlawing "soft money," 46 percent favored limiting interest group activity, and 44 percent advocated public funding of campaigns. Less than 33 percent supported lowering, raising, or removing the limits on campaign contributions. There were only a few areas where the two sets of candidates were in disagreement. More non-major party candidates (95 percent) were in favor of more candidate debates than major party aspirants (84 percent). Non-major party candidates were almost twice as likely to advocate removal of all contribution limits - a change that may enable them to overcome the small size of their donor pool by raising larger contributions from their backers.

Peripheral Players, But...

Third party and Independent candidates tend to be peripheral players in elections because the political environment works to their disadvantage. They usually wage underfinanced campaigns with little support among established politicos.

Minor party candidates express greater skepticism about voters, are somewhat more willing to use unflattering information about an opponent and are more likely to assert that campaign spending, the news media and incumbency advantages are major determinants of election outcomes. They are also more likely to back more far-reaching campaign law changes, including eliminating ceilings on campaign contributions.

Third party and independent candidates make important contributions to American politics: They raise policy issues that the major parties have ignored, provide outlets for voters to voice their discontent with the major parties, introduce grassroots innovations and help propel the transition from an era of two-party politics into another. Moreover, as the Republicans showed with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, today's minor party may someday become America's dominant party. Should that happen, these candidates' views about the election process will most certainly be heard.

Methodology Note: The first phase of this survey project included interviews, in person and by the telephone, of 515 third party, independent and major party candidates for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, governorships, other statewide offices and state legislative seats. The third party candidates are affiliated with parties as diverse as the Natural Law, Reform, Green, Libertarian, U.S. Taxpayer and Right-to-Life parties. This analysis was based on a survey sample that includes an over-sample of third party and Independent candidates to enable better measurement of the selected sample.