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Can third-party presidential candidates gain traction?
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Jill Stein, presumptive Green Party presidential nominee, speaks July 26 at a rally in Philadelphia during the second day of the Democratic National Convention. - photo by John Minchillo

Key election dates

Oct. 11: Registration deadline for general election

Oct. 17: Early voting begins for general election

Nov. 8: Election Day

The ups and downs of what many consider the strangest presidential election of their lifetime has produced a unique opportunity for third-party candidates to make a statement on the national political stage this fall.

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein are attracting voters in a way that hasn’t been seen since the unlikely rise of billionaire Ross Perot in 1992.

Perot’s appeal as an outsider kept Democrat Bill Clinton from reaching 50 percent of the national vote in his first election as president.

More than two decades later, Hillary Clinton is consistently polling below 50 percent heading into the home stretch of the election, according to a Real Clear Politics average of major polls.

Republican Donald Trump is hovering around 41 percent.

That leaves Johnson floating between 7 and 10 percent, and Stein polling between 2 and 4 percent.

For the GOP, losing voters to the Libertarian Party, which is seen as a natural home for conservatives unhappy with Trump’s candidacy, could be devastating.

Debra Pilgrim, chairwoman of the Hall County Republican Party, said third-party candidates are muddying an already divisive campaign at a crucial time in the country’s history.

“I think it does harm to both parties,” she added.

And it’s made all the worse because a third-party candidate has no realistic chance of winning, Pilgrim said.

But she believes most conservative voters will stick with the GOP “when it comes down to it … when it gets closer to crunch time.”

Meanwhile, Democrats already feel good about their chances to compete in Georgia, for example, something almost unthinkable in the reliably red Peach State not too long ago.

“We just need to get (Democrats) to the polls,” said Sheila Nicholas, chairwoman of the Hall County Democratic Party.

Nicholas, however, acknowledges that “some of the disenchanted Bernie (Sanders) supporters” could abandon Clinton on Election Day.

Gainesville resident Brian Aycock is a prime example.

One of the founders of “Northeast Georgia for Bernie Sanders,” Aycock has defected from the Democratic Party.

“Trump constitutes a very real danger to the American way of life and, really, to global stability,” Aycock said. “Obviously, I could never support him. But the Democratic Party has proven it doesn’t care about progressive issues.”

Aycock, an Air Force veteran and former member of the Hall County Democratic Party, said he will vote for Stein and the Green Party this November, a more natural fit for liberals than the Libertarian Party.

“Stein much more aligns with Bernie’s platform than Hillary does, so politically (Stein) makes sense to me,” he added. “And, ethically, both Trump and Clinton are shockingly brazen.”

Supporters of third-party candidates see 2016 as perhaps their last best hope at rising to national political prominence.

“While I’m now an independent and consider myself unaffiliated with any political party, I am supporting the efforts of third-party and independent candidates to fully participate in the presidential election,” said Amanda Swafford, a former Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate from Flowery Branch.  

Swafford takes something of a long view on politics. Raising the profile of third-party candidates has the benefit of pushing oft-dismissed issues to the fore, which can help shape and change public opinion on everything from criminal justice reform to national security issues.

“Between 50 to 70 million people will watch the presidential debates,” Swafford said. “So the ideas presented and who’s there to discuss the solutions could be paramount to the kind of government America experiences over the next four years.”  

But getting a seat at the national debate remains a hurdle too high for anyone but Democrats and Republicans.

A national bipartisan commission will take the average of five national polls to determine who gets to participate in three televised debates this fall.

Candidates must reach at least 15 percent to be included in the debates.

The commission will announce which candidates will participate prior to the first debate on Sept. 26.

Perot was last third-party candidate to participate in a presidential debate.

“If people are unwilling to support an alternative in this election, then the political establishment in this country will have undeniable evidence that they can do whatever they want and still maintain power and privilege,” Aycock said.

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