US election 2016: are there alternatives to Clinton and Trump?

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Kettlemag Calum Henderson US alternative candidates
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The ongoing presidential campaign in America is astonishing in many ways. Whatever the result in November, this will be a historic vote, as the country will either elect its first female president, or it will elect Donald Trump.

The two candidates vying for the White House this year are, according to a recent Gallup opinion poll, officially the most disliked in history; with many disliking Clinton because of scandals going back a number of years; Trump, on the other hand, is disliked so widely because, well, he’s Donald Trump.

There are always alternative candidates in American elections, but this time around they are hoping the disaffection so many voters feel for the most prominent pair will benefit them electorally.

The alternatives

Attracting the unenthused is the express wish of the ambitious Gary Johnson, candidate for the Libertarian Party. Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, could potentially damage both Clinton and Trump with his socially liberal, pro-business credentials. Less well-known is Evan McMullin, who announced his candidacy just a few days ago. A Republican, McMullin said he felt Trump’s campaign compelled him to act at a time when the country needed ‘unity, not division.’ Like Trump, the former CIA operative has never held elected office, though at this stage in the election cycle he will struggle to get his name on the ballot in every state. If that wasn’t difficult enough, he’ll have an even bigger challenge getting voters to acknowledge he exists at all. Finally, there is the American Green Party. This year a woman called Jill Stein, a doctor from Massachusetts, is their nominee, and with her pledges to reform campaign finance, introduce free health care, and tackle student loan problems, is obviously hoping to attract former supporters of Bernie Sanders.

Much though you can admire the determination and passion of these fringe candidates, they have virtually no chance of getting anywhere in November. Smaller parties have neither the money nor the man power to stage such a fight, while the media will be too obsessed with Clinton’s path to history or Trump's extraordinary outbursts to give them any air time. Controlling the news agenda is essential to winning elections, and for a long time the Democrats and Republicans have been unassailably dominant in this business. There is just no room for conscientious Greens or level-headed Libertarians.

There have been third parties and independents before, of course, and there will be again. Throughout history, many valiant souls, George Wallace, John Anderson, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader being the most prominent in the last forty years, have sought to break the duopoly, often with little success. And often these figures were unsuitable in their own right: Wallace supported segregation when it was rapidly going out of fashion, while John Anderson wanted the law changed so that the land where religious freedom is paramount would become an ‘officially Christian one.’ Quite often, what little limelight that did come with an independent campaign often insured we never saw their likes again.

Ultimately, third party candidates struggle because, as many fail to realise, there are not yet two parties. You may sound like a crank going on about how in Washington ‘they’re all the same’ and ‘only care about themselves,’ but all such clichés are rooted in truth. Most Democrats and Republicans don’t disagree very widely on major issues such as free trade and health care; even Barack Obama’s reforms of the latter only slightly changed the current system.

Opportunity in division 

Trump, for all his faults, is the first candidate in many years who has laid down a genuine dividing line between himself and his opponent. Most third party candidates are hoping that the opening up of this chasm will benefit them. If so, the Libertarian Party will be the one to watch, and if its nominee Gary Johnson does well, he can savour the irony that it is Trump that has helped rejuvenate the political system and has allowed more voices into the campaign.

Only in America, indeed.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments below.

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History and Politics student at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, but currently studying in Olso through the Erasmus exchange programme.