Two Tuesday primaries ago, after a rash of losses in large states on the Atlantic seaboard prompted the media to pronounce the Bernie Sanders campaign over, presidential candidate Jill Stein of the Green Party took to Twitter to invite Sanders to "build the revolution to last outside the rigged two-party system."
Around 8 p.m. May 3, just as Ted Cruz was announcing he would drop out of the race for the Republican nomination, Google recorded a sudden spike in searches for "Libertarian Party." Two days later, longtime Republican strategist Mary Matalin made national headlines by announcing she had changed her registration to Libertarian.
As Democrats and Republicans prepare to nominate two historically unpopular candidates, has the moment finally arrived for these third parties to give Americans another choice?
"This election does seem to be begging for protest votes to be cast," said Charlie Cook, the Louisiana-born publisher of the highly respected Cook Political Report, in an email to Gambit. "Democrats not happy about Hillary Clinton, traditional Republicans finding [Donald} Trump abhorrent — [they're] looking for someone to throw a vote to as means of showing their displeasure with their choices."
Voter dissatisfaction with the two major candidates is at an all-time high. Trump's favorability rating hovers around 30 percent, and Clinton's maxes out around 40 (31 and 39 in Gallup's April poll), suggesting millions of Americans long for another candidate. (By contrast, in May 2012, candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had favorability ratings of around 50 percent each, and in April 2008, Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain both were liked by about 60 percent of Americans.) Minutes after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz dropped out of the GOP presidential race May 3, there was a spike in Google searches for the term "libertarian party."
Although the two presumptive nominees' unpopularity may represent an extreme, it also is consistent with recent trends — perhaps a byproduct of the increasingly public nomination battles, says Ed Chervenak of the University of New Orleans (UNO) Department of Political Science, who also directs the UNO Survey Research Center. "The trend has been increasing unfavorables for major party candidates for a while," Chervenak says.
The state of the country also may make the field ripe for the emergence of a third party, says Brian Brox, an associate professor in the Tulane University Department of Political Science.
"Third parties tend to be most successful in times of economic concern," Brox says. "When people are feeling economic dislocation, when they're feeling economic anxiety, that's when they're most open to broader possibilities than just the steady state of Republicans and Democrats."
These facts — and this opportunity — are not lost on members of the Libertarian and Green parties, both of which already have won access to the ballot in Louisiana. Both have active chapters in Orleans Parish. But who are the Libertarians and the Greens, and what do they offer that's different than Democrats and Republicans?
Libertarians may represent the cleanest marriage of a single governing philosophy and a political party in American politics. At their core, they "advocate for individual liberty in every aspect of life" from both social and economic standpoints.
As the torchbearers of a philosophy, local Libertarians view their most productive work in lobbying for laws that dovetail with that worldview. At their monthly meetings, they offer regular updates on lobbying efforts in Baton Rouge — advocating for the legalization of the sale of raw milk directly from farmers, the expansion of medical marijuana, and strengthened gun rights laws. Libertarians recently spoke at the New Orleans City Council in support of recent laws decriminalizing marijuana as well.
"We were the only political party to support the ordinance, to have anyone there," says Wendy Adams, executive director of the Libertarian Party of Louisiana.
Political strategist Mary Matalin has been rethinking her long relationship with the Republican Party for some time — insisting during an appearance at Loyola University Institute of Politics that she is a "conservative," not a "Republican." Her announcement Thursday on Bloomberg Politics made her affiliation official, though she framed her new registation as a Libertarian more in terms of general frustration with the Republican Party and less about the Trump nomination. When pressed by by the hosts as to when she changed her registration, Matalin said, "Today" — but insisted that while she refuses to vote for Clinton, she simply doesn't know enough about Trump to support him.
"I'm a Republican in the Jeffersoninan, Madisonian sense. I'm not a Republican for a party or a person," Matalin said. "The Libertarian Party continues to represent those Constitutional principals that I agree with."
On social issues, Libertarians often appear liberal. They advocate for the legalization of drugs and have traditionally supported same-sex marriage rights (partly out of the belief that the government should not be regulating marriage or personal relationships at all). Some see abortion rights as another matter of individual choice. One obvious exception to that apparent social liberalism, however, is their ardent support of gun ownership rights — which they consider another issue of personal freedom.
On economics, Libertarians follow conservative patterns. They advocate for the reduction or elimination of most government regulations and programs, supporting free trade over tariffs and opposing land-use laws such as zoning at a local level, environmental regulation, and even social safety-net programs such as Social Security and Medicare. And to redress even obvious social ills that they condemn — from discrimination by private businesses to climate change — Libertarians prefer market pressure over government intervention, an idea that received a controversial national airing after Libertarian-leaning Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's remarks about his opposition to parts of the Civil Rights Act.
The Green Party, in contrast to the Libertarians, is less focused on finding applications of a singular political philosophy and more interested in promoting a wide swath of progressive goals regarding long-term sustainability and social justice. Long associated with environmental protection, Greens also favor protections against economic injustice or mass incarceration while supporting initiatives that foster diversity in all its forms.
On many specific progressive issues, there already are activist groups in New Orleans that expertly articulate problems and solutions, said Bart Everson, who is organizing the Green Party in New Orleans. "There's a ton of groups out there working on those things," Everson says. "We don't want to reduplicate their efforts; they're already doing it better than we can. But the missing piece is the electoral piece, and that's what we aim to provide."
Thus, much of the Greens' local work to date involves networking with other established progressive groups in New Orleans. The Greens have participated in protests against new oil drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, and they see the work of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition as a logical ally, even discussing the possibility of running candidates for Orleans Parish sheriff, specifically to protest the record of Sheriff Marlin Gusman. "At the national level, people are saying the most important thing that the Green Party can do is run Black Lives Matter candidates in local elections," Everson says.
The Green Party in New Orleans flourished prior to Hurricane Katrina, Everson says, with a membership so large that it required two meetings per month — one general meeting to discuss the issues and priorities, and a coordinating committee to plan specific actions. The diaspora after the storm scattered many members across the country, though former Black Panther activist Malik Rahim drew some national support for his Green Party bid for Congress against Democratic incumbent Bill Jefferson and Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao in 2008.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein attended the Louisiana state convention at Xavier University in 2014. She returned the following year for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and hosted a discussion during the Rising Tide conference on organizing a progressive movement. During that discussion, Everson says, a member of the audience asked whether the Greens had a local chapter in New Orleans — they didn't. He began organizing monthly meetings.
The Libertarians and Greens were the most popular "third" parties in the 2012 presidential election, with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson garnering nearly 1.3 million votes (just shy of 1 percent of the total) for the Libertarians and physician Jill Stein winning nearly half a million votes for the Greens. Johnson and Stein both are running again this year, and both are suing the Commission on Presidential Debates to be included alongside the Republican and Democratic nominees this year.
"Because of the oppression of the two parties, the only way to gain momentum is to have people vote for your candidate," says Ryan Hargis, a member of both the state Green Party and the recently reorganized Orleans Parish chapter.
The Libertarians and the Greens both see those debates as key to reaching 5 percent of the popular vote this year, which would make them eligible for federal matching funds for their parties' campaigns in the 2020 presidential election.
"You couldn't have a better year to be the first year to be on that stage," says Kirk Coco, a member of the Orleans Parish Libertarians. "I think if you could get on stage, it goes to 5 percent."
A Monmouth University poll in late March tested Johnson against Clinton and Trump, and found him at 11 percent (even though 76 percent of the respondents did not know who he is) — drawing slightly more support away from Clinton than Trump, but performing best in Republican-leaning states.
"The big thing in this race is going to be the percentages," says Mike Dodd, chairman of the Orleans Parish Libertarian Party.
Libertarians in Louisiana held their state convention in late April, and Adams was selected as the delegate from Orleans Parish to the national convention in Orlando at the end of May — though several other Orleans Parish members will attend as delegates in other capacities. Adams said she is still undecided how she will cast her vote, noting that Johnson has represented the Libertarians well since his nomination in 2012, but there are other appealing options.
"He's appealing to the mainstream, which is very good when they're looking at Trump or Hillary," Adams says. "It's hard. You want to look at who is the most Libertarian and who is going to do the best in mainstream America. I haven't made up my mind."
New Orleans will host the state Green Party convention July 30 at Xavier University. The delegates selected there have a similar option to vote as they see fit at the national Green Party convention in Houston, though Stein, a physician, remains a prominent voice in the party.
"It's the thing that gets people charged up. Every four years, we have (the) opportunity to catch some of that energy," Everson says. "Once Hillary [Clinton] gets the [Democratic] nomination, and [Bernie] Sanders encourages his supporters to vote for her, where does all that momentum go? Jill Stein will welcome those voters with open arms. She says she's a better socialist than Bernie and a better woman than Hillary."
In the meantime — despite their profound differences on many policies — the Greens and Libertarians are communicating with one another about how to raise awareness of additional options for voters. In late April, a small contingent of New Orleans Libertarians attended the monthly meeting of the Greens, and they discussed issues of voter registration drives, keeping membership rolls, and training members to speak on bills pending in the state legislature.
"We've established that there's a huge amount of common ground," Everson says.
"Libertarians have always been strong on the idea that we need competition of ideas," Dodd says. "These ideas don't need to be silenced by the major two parties as effectively they have been for so long, so we intend to be working with the Green Party and any other third parties that we happen to come across on ways to help each other get a platform."
Amid Republican and Democratic domination of 20th Century presidential politics, the occasional rise of third-party candidates has served only as a spoiler.
Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party split the Republicans in 1912, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Twelve years later, Robert LaFollette ran as a progressive, splitting the Democrats to give the election to Republican Calvin Coolidge. Segregationists Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and George Wallace of Alabama broke away from the Democrats to run in 1948 and 1968, respectively, but each only had an impact in the South. Ross Perot's independent bid in 1992 hurt incumbent President George H.W. Bush more than challenger Bill Clinton, enabling Clinton to win with a mere 43 percent of the vote.
Voters typically express their dissatisfaction with major-party candidates through low turnout, political scientists say. Turning to a third party is much less common, especially when those parties' candidates lack name recognition.
"What typically happens, if a Democrat is unhappy with the Democratic candidate, they stay home. Same with the Republicans. You don't see much of a defection rate for the two parties," Chervenak says. "It's really hard to vote for someone if you don't know who they are."
It also is important not to underestimate the structural ways that American elections favor a two-party system, Chervenak says. Governments where a single representative is elected from each district on a ballot that only allows one choice (unlike a parliamentary election) tend toward the dominance of two parties in a principle so widely observed that it has become known as Duverger's law, after the political scientist who first described it.
"There always seems to be this optimism that a third party will finally take root, and we'll have more than just two choices," Chervenak says. "But people are just socialized into identifying with the two parties. Given those kinds of social restraints and structural restraints, it's hard to see how a third party is going to be successful."
The concern of wasting one's vote on a third party candidate who is unlikely to prevail — or worse, helps the opposite party — has been another traditional barrier to third-party candidates. In some situations, when a particular election is all but decided in an extremely "blue" or "red" state (like Louisiana), voters who might favor a third party candidate are actually the ones "wasting" their votes if they support a major party over a third party trying to gain a foothold, Brox says.
Non-swing states such as Louisiana appeal to third parties for another reason, Brox adds — buying advertising for their candidates is more affordable than in states targeted by the major parties. "To make the case like, 'Your vote doesn't matter in an already-decided state. Expand the base of interest. Expand the debate. Vote for a third party to make us part of the future' — that would be persuasive," Brox says. "But it's just going to take a lot of resources to get that message out."
The best-case scenario for the Greens or Libertarians in the presidential contest would be a major name on the ballot, like Rand Paul for the Libertarians or Bernie Sanders for the Greens. But even then, an electoral win would be a long shot, Brox says. More realistic, and more in line with what the local party activists are actually doing, is using this election cycle as a springboard for increased name recognition and party building.
"They just need a few more voters than they typically get to meet some of these benchmarks," Brox says. "When they can start having consistent ballot access and better funding through federal matching funds, they can start recruiting better candidates. Absolutely, this is a great year for them to start hitting some of those smaller benchmarks."
Convention: Aug. 6, Houston
Leading candidate: Dr. Jill Stein of Massachusetts
Registered voters: 1,973 statewide; 546 in Orleans Parish
2012 Presidential nominee: Jill Stein
Ballot access in 2012: 36 states
Votes in 2012: 469,627 (0.4 percent of total)
High-profile former candidate: Consumer advocate Ralph Nader
Local chapter: www.lagreens.org
Convention: May 27-30, Orlando
Leading candidate: Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson
Registered voters: 11,748 statewide; 1,364 in Orleans Parish
2012 Presidential nominee: Gary Johnson
Ballot access in 2012: 48 states
Votes in 2012: 1,275,971 (1.0 percent of total)
High-profile former candidate: Former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas
Local chapter: www.lplouisiana.org