Two is company and three generally is a crowd when it comes to presidential politics in Iowa — a state with a strong two-party tradition but one that also welcomes the inclusion of third-party candidates on its election ballot.
For the 2012 general election, six third-party or independent presidential candidates have placed their names on the Iowa ballot along with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, but political experts say the best hope for those challenging the two major-party candidates is a shot by Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson to play spoiler if the Nov. 6 outcome is as close as some predict.
“If ever there was going to be a year when you’d think you would have a credible third-party candidate, it would have been this year because the political system, particularly at the federal level, seems so dysfunctional, yet we have not had that,” said Des Moines attorney Doug Gross, a 2002 gubernatorial candidate in Iowa who is active in Republican politics.
Gross and others said that is testament to the institutional power of the Democratic and Republican parties to absorb other interests and groups — ranging from Tea Party, occupy or single-issue factions — and “mainstream” them under the two-party umbrella.
Ed Wright, a Guthrie Center man who is chairman of the Libertarian Party of Iowa, said it is more a function of a system skewed in favor of the two major parties that makes it difficult for others to gain access to ballots, money, media, televised debates or inclusion in public-opinion polls that would raise the visibility of their candidates and ideas.
“There is no question that there is a circular cause and effect between a candidate’s visibility and their vote getting,” Wright said.
In seeking to get Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico, included in this month’s presidential debates, Libertarian Party executive director Carla Howell estimated her party’s presidential ticket would garner 6 percent of likely voters nationwide.
In an interview, she said that in Iowa the numbers could range from a 2 percent turnout if Johnson is excluded from the debates to 10 percent or higher if he is allowed on the same national stage with Obama and Romney.
That could be significant because Iowa’s presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 were decided by less than 10,000 votes.
Green Party candidate Ralph Nader polled 29,374 votes, or 2.2 percent, in 2000 and is considered a factor in George W. Bush’s decisive win in Florida that year, while independent H. Ross Perot garnered 253,468 Iowa votes in 1992 — an 18.7 percent showing that many believe contributed to Democrat Bill Clinton’s 6-point win over George H.W. Bush victory in Iowa that year.
“There are significant instances where, if a third-party candidate has a national profile, the person can play spoiler in the race,” said University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle. “That’s kind of the big question of this election: what will happen to those libertarian voters?”
Howell said it is difficult to predict what will happen, although she conceded experts believe that Johnson likely would take two votes away from Romney to every vote he takes away from Obama.
Wright said Romney could be negatively affected because many Libertarians are “recovering Republicans” and are still stinging from what he considered to be “shabby” treatment of Ron Paul supporters at the GOP national convention in Tampa.
“Could it cost him the presidency? Yes, definitely it could,” he said.
At the same time, Wright said Iowans who vote for Johnson will be doing so because they think he offers the best solutions for the nation heading forward and he dismissed as “absurd” contentions that a vote for a third-party candidate is wasted.
“The stolen vote argument is a propaganda line that’s been successfully sold by both of the big parties as if they own and are entitled to each individual’s vote. It is one of the great fallacies that people have bought,” he said.
By the same token, Gross and Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said most third-party candidacies are a vehicle to publicize and articulate their issues or to promote a charismatic individual.
“They certainly don’t have any likelihood that they’re going to be measuring the windows of the White House for drapes,” Gross said. “They are there to make a statement, and the interesting there is that usually their statement is that the candidate with which they have the most in common is the one that they hurt the most. So it’s kind of an ironic statement, but nevertheless that’s usually its impact.”
However, Goldford noted that ‘in a tight race, a feather on the scale makes the difference.”
Third-party candidates usually can enjoy some success at the state or regional level — notably independent Jesse Ventura’s one term as governor of Minnesota and Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s influence in presidential politics, Goldford said.
However, he noted “the last time a third party overtook and displaced one of the two major parties was in the 1850s when the Republicans displaced the Whigs.”
Total votes to presidential candidates that garnered more than 1,000 votes statewide in Iowa for past three elections.
Barack Obama/Joe Biden (Democrat): 828,940 (53.9%)
John McCain/Sarah Palin (Republican): 682,379 (44.4%)
Total other: 25,501 (1.7%)
George W. Bush/Dick Cheney (Republican): 751,0957 (49.9%)
John Kerry/John Edwards (Democrat): 741,898 (49.2%)
Total other: 13,053 (0.9%)
Al Gore/Ron Lieberman (Democrat): 638,517 (48.5%)
George W. Bush/Dick Cheney (Republican): 634,373 (48.2%)
Total other: 42,673 (3.2%)
Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke (Green): 29,374 (2.2%)
Pat Buchanan/Ezola Foster (Reform): 5,731 (0.4%)
Harry Browne/Art Olivier (Libertarian): 3,209 (0.2%)
Hagelin/Nat Goldhaber (petition): 2,281 (0.1%)