Gary Johnson, once the Republican governor of New Mexico, is now campaigning for the Libertarian Party's nomination for president. Ron Paul is still running as a Republican, but as he recently told HuffPost, he hasn't ruled out a third-party candidacy either. Meanwhile, a group called Americans Elect is vowing to put an independent candidate on the ballot in all fifty states.
Could this be the year that an independent or third-party candidate really makes a mark on a presidential election? "This may be an exceptional year," said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. "I think the fact that politicians and traditional parties are held in such low-esteem could bode for different outcomes."
For anyone wondering whether the time is ripe for an outsider to take on the two major parties, you need only look at the Republican field, which increasingly resembles the returns department at Macy's. Ever since Rick Perry announced his candidacy, briefly challenging Mitt Romney's claim to inevitability, voters have tried on one style of candidate after another, only to decide that none of them really fit.
Now, as the polls close in New Hampshire, Romney looks poised to win his second contest in a row -- but that doesn't mean Republicans are happy with what their party has to offer. A CBS News poll published Monday shows only 37 percent of Republican primary voters approve of their choices. And another poll that came out Monday may be even more telling. According to Gallup, a record-high 40 percent of Americans reject both parties, identifying themselves as independent.
"The dissatisfaction level with the two party system is so high this year, and especially on the Republican party side, that there are some genuine party-building activities," said J. David Gillespie, the author of "Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America."
"If I were a betting man, I would say there's a fifty-fifty chance we'll see something this year that will be substantially greater than what Ross Perot was able to do in 1992," he said.
One of possibilities for an independent candidacy involves a non-profit corporation called Americans Elect, which, according to the chief operating officer Elliot Ackerman, intends to hold the "first ever nonpartisan nomination convention," an online process in which "any registered voter can participate as a delegate." In this model, the delegates will choose six candidates in an initial qualifying round in April, and those candidates will then choose running mates from a party other than their own and move on to the nominating convention.
A major obstacle facing independent candidates in a general election campaign is the difficulty of getting on the ballot in all 50 states. But so far, Ackerman said, the group has managed to gather 2.3 million of the 2.9 million signatures needed to clear that hurdle.
Ackerman describes the project as an alternative to an unfair nomination process, one that excludes people who choose not to register with either party and gives undue influence to voters in early-primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Referring to a Gallup poll published in September, he noted that 81 percent of American say they're dissatisfied with the way they're being governed. "In a climate where people are worried about their jobs, worried about their student loans, worried that their children wont have the opportunities they have, where we have a political class that is putting special interests ahead of the interests of the American people, people are looking for alternate choices."
Indeed, this effort comes at a time when Americans are unquestionably looking for alternatives, and not just to the current crop of Republican candidates. Liberals' disappointment in President Obama is practically an institution of its own. Then there's the Tea Party. And Occupy Wall Street. "Things are definitely in flux and that historically is the time when opposition arises as a social movement," said O'Connor.
At the same time, the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which led to the creation of super PACS, means that outsiders are up against a two-party system that is better-funded than ever.
Ackerman, for his part, argues that the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle have actually helped level the playing field. "You still need money to run for president but you don't need a billion dollars. You need 250, 300 million dollars," he said.
Asked about the role of super PACs in the election, Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, said he disliked them, but he had accepted the support of one anyway; he said felt it would be "imprudent not to accept that money." So far, he said, that effort has yielded "not a cent."
Johnson started out as a Republican candidate but withdrew his candidacy for the party's nomination in December after CNN excluded him from a series of polls and he was shut out of debates. "I really thought that there was going to be a choice," he said. "I guess I was naïve entering this in the first place."
This article has been edited to clarify Americans Elect's nominating process.