11/05/2012 09:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

All But Ignored, Third Parties Endeavor On

Jake is a member of the Junior State of America (JSA), a student-run political awareness organization for high school students.

"Wasting your vote is voting for someone you don't believe in!" Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson declared at the first Free and Equal 2012 Presidential Debate on October 23. The sentiment was shared completely by his three opponents, as well as the audience, who exploded into cheers and thunderous applause.

The event, organized by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and moderated by Larry King, featured dozens of anti-establishment tirades from Gary Johnson, Virgil Goode (Constitution Party), Rocky Anderson (Justice Party), and Jill Stein (Green Party). The candidates remained mostly positive, and no one in the room brought up the uncomfortable fact that it was unlikely for any of them to break 1 percent of the popular vote in the general election.

Months earlier, however, many political commentators declared 2012 the year of the third party, the election that would finally deal a visible blow to the political establishment. With the Tea Party revolution of 2010, the massive Occupy protests, and the public's extreme aversion to Congress, the 2012 election seemed to be the perfect storm headed towards the traditional political hierarchy. This possibility persisted for months, through all of 2011 and early 2012. Texas Congressman and perennial candidate Ron Paul ran his strongest Presidential campaign yet, organizing a massive grassroots campaign of youth eager to tear down the two-party dichotomy. Americans Elect, a political organization founded to pick an independent candidate in the nation's "first online primary," raised a staggering $35 million in the hopes of putting a centrist on all 50 states' ballots.

The two largest third parties, Libertarian and Green, nominated very competent and charismatic candidates. Gary Johnson was clearly the most accredited nominee the Libertarians had ever run -- a very popular two-term governor of New Mexico, nationally renowned for being the most fiscally conservative governor in the nation during his two terms, and overall a very pragmatic executive with a clean, vibrant personal life. It was widely believed that, after Ron Paul's inevitable defeat in the Republican primary, Gary Johnson would take the lead in the anti-government crusade. The Green Party nominated the dynamic and eloquent progressive Jill Stein, famous for her extensive work in third party politics. She immediately proposed a "Green New Deal," which provided for a massive stimulus with a focus on Green jobs to be paid for in full by a thirty percent reduction in military spending and tax increases on the wealthy. Her policy suggestions quickly won her the endorsements of many notable intellectuals from Noam Chomsky to Chris Hedges.

So, with viable third party candidates and an electorate frustrated with the two major parties, how did the third party movement fail to ever gain traction? Simply put, there never was any cohesive "third party movement." Different factions of the greater anti-establishment frustration conveyed messages that were in greater contrast to each other's messages than those of President Obama and Governor Romney. With the Libertarians claiming the solution was to cripple the government, progressives claiming it was to empower it, and centrists claiming it was to compromise, it soon became clear that no single anti-establishment consensus could be reached, save that the establishment was undesirable.

In addition, the "perfect storm" in the political sphere that had begun in 2010 had almost completely blown over by mid-2012. When both sides of the political spectrum realized how close the Obama-Romney contest would be, they began crying spoiler on the third parties, and even some of the most dedicated Libertarians and progressives quietly shifted their support to the major candidates. Americans Elect failed to field a viable candidate who could reach the minimum required threshold of 10,000 "delegates," and hopes for a centrist candidate were abandoned.

Refusing to end his campaign until the Republican National Convention, Ron Paul stood between his grassroots army and Johnson for months. And when the convention finally closed, Paul refused to formally endorse the Libertarian Party candidate, seriously dividing his army's loyalty to Johnson. The Johnson campaign decided to dash all hopes of actually winning, instead imploring his supporters to "cast a protest vote that counts." In September the online prediction market Intrade opened a market for Johnson's popular vote in the election; it has dictated from its opening about a 35 percent chance for Johnson to exceed 1 percent of the popular vote. Stein, in the meantime, failed to set up an efficient grassroots organization and fundraise effectively. Her campaign currently has a goal of a mere $500,000 set for election day.

However hopeless the election may actually seem to them, the candidates have managed to keep their heads held high. They have continued to fight for their guiding values and principles, and their small but devoted bands of followers have stood by them. After a round of run-off voting from the first Free and Equal debate, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are off for one last round of last-minute debating on Monday, November 5. As the third-party debates and the campaigns themselves will likely continue to be neglected by our political culture, the candidates fight on now for their message, not their electoral success. For this reason, an overwhelming defeat in the coming election will not destroy the third party endeavor, but embolden it. For in the words of an old, often-ignored critic of the establishment, "Let it not be said that we did nothing."