America’s either-or presidential race may be turning into a multiple-choice affair.
The Internet exploded Monday after conservative columnist Bill Kristol promised an “impressive” independent candidate would soon surface to challenge Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the fall. Kristol didn’t name the candidate, but speculation roared across the web anyway.
Some conservative websites squawked, as did Trump, who called Kristol a “dummy” and any independent candidate a “spoiler.” The presumptive GOP nominee holds a news conference Tuesday in New York, where the subject of alternative candidates is likely to surface.
But Kristol’s phantom candidate would be only one of several alternatives voters may be asked to consider this fall. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, nominated by the Libertarian party Sunday, has reached double digits in some polls. “People really have an appetite for something different,” he said.
Indeed, Clinton and Trump are deeply unpopular: More than half of voters surveyed in mid-May said they want a third choice on the ballot. More than 9 out of 10 voters under age 29 want another option, the poll showed.
Voters “are tired of the same-old, same-old,” Kansas Citian Austin Petersen told The Star. Petersen finished second in the Libertarian presidential balloting.
Yet the electoral hurdles for the Libertarian nominee, and for any other third-choice candidate, remain extraordinarily high. There have been well-publicized third-party presidential challenges over the years, including campaigns by George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 — yet a Republican or Democrat has won every presidential election since a Whig won in 1848.
The major party candidates’ dominance in fundraising and media is a big reason for that record, experts say, coupled with ballot access rules tailored to help Republicans and Democrats.
“No independent candidate can win,” said American Enterprise Institute political scholar Norm Ornstein.
Still, in a year in which a political novice can win a major party nomination, and a socialist can compete on the other side, activists insist a viable independent candidacy is no longer just a pipe dream of the disaffected.
“Something unique is happening,” said Charlie Wheelan, a founder of the Centrist Project, a group that seeks to recruit and support independent political candidates. “What we don’t know is how the chapter ends.”
That optimism has prompted some Republicans and conservatives to continue a frantic search for a true independent as an alternative to Trump and Clinton — a candidate who could run in at least some states, either winning outright or blocking the major candidates from winning an Electoral College majority.
Names have surfaced: Mitt Romney, the two-time presidential candidate, or Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Former Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is getting a look.
“There are folks out talking about it,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican. “Actively, to this very moment. We’ll see how it unfolds.”
The parade is led by conservative writers like Kristol of the Weekly Standard and Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. “There is demand for a third candidate,” Rubin wrote last week. “The unprecedented unfavorability of the two major parties’ front-runners creates an opportunity.”
On the other side of the ledger, some Democrats and independents — and Trump — have urged Sen. Bernie Sanders to run as an independent if he loses to Clinton. “He could see a path to victory,” columnist Tim Farley wrote in April.
Sanders has not encouraged such speculation, and no truly independent alternative to Clinton, or Trump, has stepped forward to announce a candidacy. Some potential candidates, like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have removed themselves from consideration, citing time and money pressures for the decision.
The absence of a true nonaffiliated independent candidate has led some voters to actively consider nominees from existing political parties, like the Libertarians.
In a recent report, the data company iQuanti said Google searches for third-party candidates exploded over the last seven months, as Trump and Clinton emerged as the likely major-party nominees.
Ballot access laws are one reason some supporters of a Trump-Clinton alternative are turning to candidates from established minor parties. Independent candidates face enormous challenges in gathering petition signatures for getting on the ballot, not to mention time constraints and different laws from state to state.
By contrast, nominees of established third and fourth parties get automatic ballot access in at least some states. The Green Party is on the ballot in 21 states, according to the website Ballotpedia, while Libertarians claim a ballot line in 32 states, including Kansas and Missouri. Other states may be added.
Darrell Castle, a Memphis, Tenn., lawyer, is the Constitution Party’s presidential nominee. He’ll be on the ballot in at least 19 states, he says, including Missouri.
Some Republicans, worried about Trump, asked Castle to leave the race and make his party’s automatic ballot spot available to a mainstream Republican. He said no.
“My goal is to be president,” he said.
Pat Caddell, the pollster and strategist for former President Jimmy Carter, blames ballot access hurdles for the relative lack of success for independent candidates.
“Americans may want a viable independent to run for president, but that sentiment is not enough,” he wrote in The Hill, a Washington, D.C., website and publication. “Vast obstacles make it incredibly arduous to fill the vacuum despite the desire of a majority of Americans.”
But ballot access is just one part of the problem, activists say. Independent candidates are routinely banned from presidential debates, fundraising is difficult and time-consuming, and outsider campaigns must build the infrastructure from scratch for getting out voters.
And a diffuse, less-than-dominant mainstream media finds it difficult to pay much attention to third-party or independent candidacies, critics contend.
Additionally, some voters see third-party candidates as spoilers, not as realistic options. Some Democrats still blame lawyer and activist Ralph Nader for taking votes away from Al Gore in 2000, costing him the election. Republicans this year say a conservative third option to Trump would be, as party chairman Reince Priebus put it, “suicide.”
Those headwinds have convinced some activists that breaking the major-party grip on presidential politics is too difficult — this year. Instead, they say, they want to pursue independent candidacies at the state level, in preparation for the future.
Wheelan of the Centrist Project says he has discussed such an idea with Vince Schoemehl, the former mayor of St. Louis and a one-time candidate for governor in Missouri.
That means a realistic independent try for the White House may still be years away.
“Trump and Clinton are a symptom of something that’s been going on for a long time,” Wheelan said.
“There’s a battle for the soul of both parties — at the same time, you’ve got this large and growing group saying, ‘We don’t like either of them.’
“Somehow, that has to realign itself.”