By Kevin Lavery, WKAR
Editor's note: Interlochen Pubic Radio decided this year to cover the crowded First Congressional race by profiling or interviewing every candidate on the ballot. With the exception of one candidate, who did not respond to our interview request, those are available here.
Republicans and Democrats are in the final push of an intense media blitz to win the hearts and minds of voters. For generations, the message and the money that fuels American politics has been concentrated in the hands of the two main political parties. That makes it hard for third parties to gain a lot of attention. But that doesn't deter them from trying to get their voices heard.
The Uphill Battle
Two things drive political candidates: passion and frustration. Every office seeker tells would-be voters how fed up they are with the status quo, and how they're the right person to change it. The rhetoric is the same from Democrats and Republicans.
Some candidates find their views don't mesh with the D's and the R's, and so they run as independents, or with third parties. They may have enough passion and frustration, but they're up against another strong sentiment: tradition.
"We thrive on tradition," explains Craig Ruff, an analyst with Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. "And one of the traditions is you're either born and bred a Republican or you're born and bred a Democrat. You're not born and bred U.S. Taxpayer Party."
Or the Green Party, or Libertarian, or Natural Law. We spoke with three of the four minor parties on the Michigan ballot for this story. No one from the Natural Law Party could be reached for comment.
With a few exceptions, third parties have historically won very few high-level offices. Yet they continue to field candidates and carve out their own niche.
"There is a powerful history of the importance of third parties in America," says Green Party of Michigan co-chair Fred Vitale. He says third parties are at their best in times of great social change, when they generate dialogue that helps the nation move through difficult issues.
"Questions of employment, foreclosure, the safety net, war, those are very big questions, and the country is at kind of a turning point," Vitale says. "And I think that the Green Party under those circumstances can in fact grow and become very important."
But third parties say it's a challenge just being recognized.
"We're discriminated by the press, we're discriminated by the government's rules and regulations," says Will Tyler White. "It's hard to get a leg up."
White is the treasurer of the Lansing area chapter of the Michigan Libertarian Party. He says the party had to pressure the state of Michigan to enact a law to keep his and other third parties on the ballot.
"We had to have another petition drive about eight or 10 years ago to be recognized again as a political party, even though we'd been around for 30 years," White laments. "It's kind of ridiculous."
Third Parties & Public Radio
White also criticizes public broadcasting. He says it's wrong for stations accepting public funds to exclude third party candidates from political debates. White asks what would happen if sportscasters only reported on selected baseball teams and ignored the rest.
"They're not popular, so we're just going to report the scores on the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers," says White. "No, if you did that, you'd be lambasted for discriminating against all the other teams. It's no different in politics."
Public media stations look to a 1995 policy established by the Michigan Association of Public Broadcasters. Stations consider whether a candidate has gained at least five percent support in a "significant, reliable, non-partisan public opinion poll."
MAPB president Steve Schram says the federal government gives broadcasters the autonomy to make their own decisions about which candidates they invite.
"The FCC does allow broadcasters good faith news judgment and editorial discretion, and it's certainly based on reasonable pre-established and objective criteria such as polling data," says Schram. "And that's where we've been consistent with our policy since 1995, and that still applies today."
Gaining More Exposure
Despite feelings of exclusion, chairman Bill Mohr with the U.S. Taxpayers Party of Michigan says they are starting to get more mainstream exposure.
"You called me for this interview, so I'm very pleased with that," Mohr says. "That's beginning to change, and I expect by the year 2012, by that election we're going to see a huge change in the media."
So, will the day ever come when third parties have equal status on the political stage? Analyst Craig Ruff says only if the rules of the game are changed. Ruff says our "first past the post" system of awarding elections to the highest polling candidate doesn't represent the opinions of voters who collectively chose the runners-up.
"If there was a proportional representation where you got a percentage of members of the legislature or county board of commissioners, based on what percentage of the vote you got in the election, you would have a much more vibrant third party system and fourth party system and five party system," says Ruff.
Ruff says third party candidates have a better chance at getting elected now than even a decade ago. That's due in no small part to a rising public discontent with Republicans and Democrats. And if that wave continues to build over the next two years, the 2012 election might look something like 1912. That was the year Theodore Roosevelt, an iconic two-term Republican president, became so frustrated with the GOP that he broke ranks to run for a third term with a new party: the Progressives. But America wasn't ready for a bull moose, and the voters rode Woodrow Wilson's Democratic donkey up the steps of the White House.
But a third party in 2012 needs someone as charismatic as Teddy, and a cause equal to the charisma.