By Dr Keith Hankins. Research Fellow, Centre for Ethical Leadership at Ormond College, University of Melbourne; Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Chapman University, Orange, California.
There seems to be a lot of love for third party candidates this election.
The most noteworthy of these is the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, who has been polling between 7 – 12% nationally – numbers that in the last half century have been eclipsed only once, by billionaire Reform Party candidate Ross Perot in 1992.
Trump and Clinton are among the least-liked candidates ever
The support for Johnson, as well as for Green Party candidate Jill Stein and independent Republican Evan McMullin, has generally been attributed to the fact that the Democrat and Republican parties have both nominated candidates, in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, neither of whom is well regarded by voters.
This view is certainly right to some extent.
Trump's unfavourable numbers are truly unprecedented. He began his campaign as a divisive figure, and following a spate of recent scandals things have only got worse for him with 65% of probable voters now expressing an unfavourable or strongly unfavourable view of him.
Clinton is not much better off – her ‘unfavourability’ rating is higher than almost any other major candidate on record.
However, with populist and nationalist parties sprouting up in many countries around the world, many election watchers have been left to ask whether there is something else behind the growth in support for third parties in the United States, and what, if anything, it might mean for the future of electoral politics there.
The system guarantees we’re unlikely to ever see many third party candidates elected
With its independently elected executive and first-past-the-post voting, the United States has an electoral system that structurally favors domination by two major parties (a fact described by political scientists as Duverger's Law).
The reason for this is that in a first-past-the-post system, rather than working to influence policy through small issue-centric parties, segments of the population who have views on particular issues that diverge from the views of the majority of their fellow citizens are better off trying to effect change by working within the confines of one of the major parties.
By contrast, in parliamentary democracies, especially those that utilize proportional representation in at least one of their elected bodies as Australia does, small parties have more influence over policy because they are sometimes able to demand concessions from larger parties in exchange for helping them to form governing coalitions.
But voters are disillusioned with the two major parties
This support is indicative of changes that we're likely to see in one (or both) of the Democrat and Republican parties in coming years.
Greens presidential candidate Jill Stein with supporters. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
As a result of changing demographics as well as structural shifts in the economy, both parties have begun to experience a fracturing of the traditional coalitions from which they have traditionally drawn support.
One particularly significant source of this has been the steady shift of the American economy away from manufacturing industries and towards the service sector.
This shift has been partly responsible for the stagnation in the incomes of working and middle class families, and in light of the widespread perception that both parties are too beholden to big corporations, it should come as no surprise that, although voters have become increasingly polarised over the years, significant numbers of voters no longer see either party as representing their interests.
Indeed, this is almost certainly what explains what we saw in the primaries for both parties where voters threw significant support behind "outsider" candidates like Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, and it likely explains the significant support that Donald Trump is still attracting.
The major parties need to evolve
Although third parties are unlikely to ever have a direct impact on American politics, it is very likely that they will come to have a significant indirect influence – either as a result of their ability to help shape national conversations, or, more plausibly, because the support they are now enjoying will force the Democrat and Republican parties to evolve in order to regain the support of currently disaffected voters.
In a campaign season that has been focused far too much on personalities, the attention that third party candidates have received has led to some (albeit still far too little) time being spent on issues that would otherwise have been neglected.
In the case of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, that issue is climate change and what (if anything) we should do about it.
In the case of the Libertarian Party headlined by two former Republican governors of left-leaning states, the ideas that America should be less quick to intervene in foreign conflict, and that there is space in American politics for a political coalition that is fiscally conservative, but socially liberal.
The most lasting influence of this year's support for third party candidates, however, may end up coming in the future. If Libertarian Gary Johnson receives at least 5% of the vote in November - a number that polls suggest is possible - he guarantees his party public funding in the next election. And, although the Libertarian Party would still be unlikely to win many electoral victories, that would go a long way towards guaranteeing that voters disillusioned by the two major parties can continue to have a voice.
Image: Gary Johnson, Libertarian presidential candidate. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr