When Provost William Clyde was shut out of a debate among major party candidates during his recent congressional bid in Connecticut, he did not let that stop him from having his voice heard. Instead, he staged his own debate right next door in a law firm’s parking lot.
“I arranged to have speakers, lights, supporters and all of that come and it came together at the very last minute,” he said of the evening.
Clyde, who recently ran for Congress in Connecticut’s 2nd district on the Green Party ticket against incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney D-2nd, experienced these and other setbacks that characterize third party campaigns attempting to break through the two party system. The election on Nov. 4 resulted in the Courtney’s reelection by a majority of the vote, while Clyde took only 1 percent of the vote.
Clyde said one of his biggest struggles in the campaign was breaking through the current selection mechanism for choosing the right person to fill the job. He said that today’s elections are constructed to leave new voices out.
“The selection mechanism for choosing the person to fill the job in different places is of different quality for finding the person who’s qualified,” he said.
Oftentimes, the limitless funds that mainstream campaigns can raise brings them to the forefront of that process. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which removed limits on corporate funding of political campaigns, means mainstream candidates can raise enough money to extend and bolster their campaigns.
Julie Leninger Pycior, Ph.D. and professor of history at the college, said that this ruling has changed how politics in the U.S. are operating.
“We are in a new era in one sense, which is money in politics,” Pycior said. “I’m sure that England, for example, limits how much you can contribute to a campaign. They want one person one vote, one dollar one vote. You can’t do that here because of court decisions.”
Clyde said that in his large district of 63 towns, that money translates into presence. Being associated with a major party also provided more money and resources, such as volunteers and immediate access to the media.
“If you can’t put another ad up, that assertion in ads go unchallenged,” Clyde said of his opponents’ ads, which leaves voters with “incomplete information.”
Instead, Clyde’s campaign ran radio ads when he could afford them and relied heavily on social media to spread his message.
“I was counting on social media,” Clyde said, although the social platforms did not reach a very wide audience. As of Nov. 9, his campaign’s Facebook page had 178 likes and its Twitter account had 21 followers.
“People who are smart about politics are looking today at how to make use of social media,” Margaret Groarke, Ph.D. and associate professor of government at the college, said. She said the Obama campaign is a good example of effective social media and that it was an innovator in using social media as part of its effort to build something political.
Clyde relied on these alternative media outlets because of his tight budget, which is part of his philosophy and a major component of his platform for campaign reform. According to his campaign website, no donations to the campaign over $100 would be accepted.
“Campaign costs have become so high that elected officials are continually preoccupied with campaigns and fund-raising, even after they are in office,” Clyde’s website reads. “And this preoccupation often drives them to adopt extreme ideologies that are divisive, which plays out in our government.”
Without the funds to run an expensive campaign, Clyde tried to drum up his own media.
“I did press releases to try and get visibility,” he said. But “as a third party candidate, I was not taken seriously,” Clyde said.
“Free media wasn’t really offered,” he said. “The problem is that I hadn’t been given the opportunity to be an alternative.”
Although media interest in Clyde was minimal, a few local newspapers and radio shows invited him to be interviewed. While the media outlets all endorsed other candidates, the Norwich Bulletin wrote that Clyde would have been “more formidable opponent if he were the GOP challenger in this contest. He has clearly demonstrated a better understanding of the issues. His decision to run as a Green, and the self-imposed ban on fundraising, are principled stands in favor of campaign finance reform, but the undoing of his candidacy. Without the financial resources, his ability to engage in the dialogue is severely hampered. One need not abandon principle to be practical.”
The one event that did stir up some attention was when he staged his own debate with Libertarian candidate Dan Reale next door to the debate both third party candidates had been excluded from.
“I was creatively trying to get as much visibility as I could,” Clyde said.
While Clyde admits his reach and influence were limited during the campaign, he said “basically everyone who we talked to at all was really excited” about what he had to say.
Clyde’s platform included term limits for politicians, serious campaign reforms, finding a moderate approach to handling climate change, committing to national defense, improving health care and providing education free of socioeconomic disparities, according to his website.
Historical patterns of third party candidates and campaigns, however, show that while third parties almost never win, they can contribute to a larger discussion on the issues.
Pycior said that oftentimes third parties can help elevate issues that voters feel the major parties are ignoring.
“That’s why people sometimes vote for a third party, when they feel the two major parties are ignoring the one issue that matters to them the most,” Pycior said. “So you lose, but sometimes you get the attention of your party. And sometimes they incorporate your view.”
“Third parties operate more as a way for most groups to bring an issue into a conversation more than they do to win elections,” Groarke said.
While third parties contribute to the discussion, they are almost never contenders in major elections. Pycior said this might be due to what voters see as a tradeoff.
“If you think about it, if you vote for a third party, you are taking votes away from your second choice and helping the guy you like the least,” she said. “So, in 2000, people who voted for Ralph Nader were accused of taking votes away from Al Gore.”
“It’s not wasting your vote,” Clyde said of voting for a marginal candidate. “Why don’t you use your vote to say something you feel?”
The difficulty is that fewer voters are heading to the polls at all. Voter turnout decreased for the Nov. 4 midterm elections in all but 12 states in the U.S. according to an article in U.S. News and World Report.
Despite his loss at the polls, Clyde said he thinks the Connecticut — and the U.S. — can take steps to improve under the right leadership.
“We have the potential and the responsibility,” to do so, Clyde said. “It’s important for my kids, it’s important for the nation, it’s important for the world.”
He said he would consider running again and is “having follow up conversations” with former GOP representatives about a future with their party.
“If I thought I could contribute to that conversation that we can and have to do something, I would absolutely consider it,” Clyde said.