Many voters say they want an outsider alternative to Republicans and Democrats, but in the ballot box they reliably select one of the two insiders. Such was again the case this election cycle.
Take, for example, Arkansas’ Libertarians. The party contested all four congressional races and all statewide races, but the governor’s race was the big one. Libertarians hoped their candidate, Mark West, could win 3 percent so they could avoid the legal requirement of collecting 10,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2020.
They didn’t make it. West won 2.9 percent. His 25,753 votes fell 859 short.
West is a pretty good candidate who effectively articulates the Libertarians’ anti-government platform. He ran to the right of Gov. Asa Hutchinson on guns and government health care, which meant there was a population of unhappy conservatives receptive to his views. Hutchinson was certain to win re-election, so they should have felt free to cast their ballots for West.
Some undoubtedly did. He collected 9,434 more votes than the party’s candidate did in 2014. Still, it wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, the state’s only independent legislator was defeated in his bid for re-election. Rep. Mark McElroy, I-Tillar, was an incumbent first elected as a Democrat to represent the state’s most southeastern district in 2013. Prior to that, he’d been a county judge and justice of the peace. He’d left the party this year and was trying to win re-election as an independent. But after winning all those elections with a “D” by his name, he could only get 30 percent this year. The Democrat won a three-way race with 44 percent.
Outsider candidates failed to break through in other states. In Alaska, the incumbent independent governor dropped out late in the campaign and endorsed the Democrat, who lost. In Missouri, independent Senate candidate Craig O’Dear won 1.4 percent. Two years ago, Kansas’Greg Orman ran a very competitive independent Senate campaign before losing to the Republican incumbent. This year, running for governor, he won 6.5 percent in a race won by the Democrat.
Why is it so hard for independents and third party candidates to win? Sometimes the marketplace rejects their ideas. Otherwise, blame it on the system, on money, on negative partisanship and on inertia.
It pains me to write this, but the two-party system is baked into American democracy’s cake. While the Constitution never mentions parties and George Washington warned against them, they emerged early.
The two-party system is solidified by the winner-take-all electoral system and by negative partisanship, which is the growing disdain many Americans have for one particular party or the other. Many voters are so committed to defeating one major party’s candidates that they will vote only for the other major party’s – often taking a “lesser of two evils” approach.
Add millions of campaign dollars flowing only to Republicans and Democrats, and it becomes hard for the outsiders to win.
Through the centuries, outsider movements have briefly arisen but then have faded or been swallowed up. An exception was the years leading up to the Civil War. As the political issues around slavery became increasingly unsolvable, one of the two major parties, the Whigs, collapsed. Meanwhile, the Republican Party emerged. In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was one of four major party candidates. Four years later, he defeated only a Democrat, and it’s been pretty much those two parties, with occasional exceptions, ever since.
Non-major party candidates do sometimes win elections. There are two independent U.S. senators today. The reform group Unite America is trying to elect several centrist ones to create a bloc that steers Congress through partisan gridlock.
Even when they lose, independent and third party candidates can call attention to their issues and force the parties to react. In 1992, independent presidential candidate Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the vote while campaigning to balance the federal budget. Democrats and Republicans later balanced the budget, sort of.
As for this year, Arkansas Libertarians came closer than before to that 3 percent plateau.
Still, for candidates who devote months to campaigning, while moral victories are OK, the actual kind would be more fun.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas.
This article provided by NewsEdge.