Can a Third Party Candidate Win?

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In order to connect with voters, politicians running for office choose a platform on which to base their campaign. During presidential races, these platforms are amplified, and sometimes come to define the candidate.

Most of these are predictable issues that move the needle for a large number of constituents—tax reform, unemployment, economic viability, foreign policy, immigration. Any voter who’s listened to a given candidate’s stump speech can identify these and a handful of other topics regularly pontificated by presidential hopefuls.

But how about human augmentation?

That’s the manifesto pushed by Zoltan Istvan, a 2016 presidential candidate you’ve probably never heard of. He’s running for the Transhumanist Party, a political entity of his own creation that advocates for more research and funding in the area of science to improve human health and lives, most notably in the realm of human technological integration.

“I hope to spread my message of transhumanism, the field of using science and technology to radically change the human being,” Istvan tells BTRtoday. “My main platform is to take money from the military and spend it on science for Americans. We could have a war on cancer instead of small Middle East countries, for example.”

Noble though his message and aspirations for office may be, Istvan faces the same fate as just about every single third party candidate for more than a century—he’s going to lose, and it won’t be close.

If this election cycle has reinforced one aspect of the American political system, it’s the intrinsic connection to the two major political parties. Anti-establishment candidates have emerged (and succeeded) during both primaries, and each has admitted pledging to their given party at least partially to take advantage of their infrastructures.

It’s not unfair to say that the presidential electoral system is setup to dissuade third party candidates from emerging. Dr. Candice Nelson, professor of political science at American University, says the biggest problem posed to people running outside of a major party is actually getting onto voting ballots.

“Ballot access rules vary from state to state,” Nelson tells BTRtoday. “It’s extremely expensive to get on the ballot if you’re not a Democrat or Republican, or an established third party candidate that has run before.”

Basically, states have the ability to determine the criteria for a candidate to be included. Typically, they will grant access to candidates nominated by parties that regularly have lines on the ballot. That’s Republicans and Democrats, of course, but also well established smaller parties such as the Green Party and Libertarian Party, which do a tremendous amount of work on the state and local levels to remain on general election ballots year after year.

Though the system appears to create a duopoly between the two major parties, Dr. Lara Brown, professor of political science and director of George Washington’s graduate political management program, explains the reasoning behind it.

“The issue is that most of our elections are run on a plurality rule, so at the end of the day the candidate with the most votes wins,” Brown tells BTRtoday. “The problem is if you let anybody and everybody onto the ballot, the person who is not preferred by the majority can in fact end up winning if they have a very persistent and sticky minority.”

Aside from those requirements, many states also necessitate signatures from a certain percentage voters from the previous election, as well as ballot fees. All told, the total adds up quickly, and makes it terribly difficult for smaller candidates to create any kind of dent.

“It’s a massive signature getting effort, and that really is where the money comes in,” Brown says, “because you have to organize and get enough volunteers to go out in each state and collect signatures, or you have to pay signature gathering firms to do it on your behalf. Some states have more lax laws than others, but typically speaking, the hurdle to get there is certainly a yearlong effort.”

The only significant outlier in terms of lack of third party success is Ross Perot. In 1992, the Texas billionaire ran for president as an independent candidate, predicating his entire campaign on calling attention to the growing national debt.

He organized a massive volunteer network for ballot access and spent more than $60 million on his campaign efforts, which would top more than $100 million today. Though he received zero electoral votes and carried no states, Perot ended up getting more than 19 million votes and swung the 1992 election in favor of Democrat Bill Clinton.

Perot’s endeavor (and subsequent candidacy in 1996) was admirable, but even the millions of dollars he shelled out two decades ago pale in comparison to what major party candidates go through. According to reports, Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign cost more than $1 billion, with more than $775 million spent by Obama’s campaign committee, $286 million spent by the Democratic Party, and $75 million from his main super PAC.

The one area where Perot succeeded, however, was pushing his platform into the national conversation. It was his belief that the national debt—then just $4 trillion—had become untenable, and someone had to do something about it. Soon afterward, both parties began talking regularly about national debt, and it remains one of those predetermined topics you can expect to be mentioned by candidates or asked about at a presidential debate.

What Perot really represents is the only possibility for success while running for president outside of the Democratic or Republican parties. The deck is stacked entirely against third party and independent candidates, but that hasn’t exactly dissuaded folks from giving it a shot—at the moment, there are 33 people listed with that designation. Thus, the real goal for any tangential candidate is to bring their main advocacy into the fore.

“It’s really more of an ideological and issue-based candidacy rather than a personal ambition,” Brown says, “because at the end of the day, if they know they’re going to lose, then they’re hoping to gain enough attention to change the conversation.”

That’s certainly been Istvan’s strategy from the beginning. He’s appeared on many talkshows and podcasts, and has published a number of opinion pieces in well known publications such as Salon, Newsweek, and Vice. Istvan holds no illusions about winning the presidency, but he hopes his candidacy leads to other opportunities to continue increase the influence and knowledge of transhumanism.

“I hope to end up in D.C. because of my campaign efforts,” Istvan says. “There may be an administrative position for me waiting where I can help push American science and technology forward.”