The path from the ballot box to elected office is paved with obstacles, especially if you’re running as an independent or third-party candidate. The higher your ultimate political goal, the higher and more seemingly impossible the climb.
However, there is some good news for those who are looking to break the establishment stranglehold on American politics and effect real change. General dissatisfaction with the status quo, coupled with more ways to build name recognition and reach the masses, have made it possible for independent hopefuls to gain some ground.
Join us as we examine the various barriers that these candidates face at the local, state, and national levels of elections and offer some potentially winning strategies for independent victories.
Without the infrastructure of a major party affiliation or known name, gaining traction at any level is going to be a challenge. However, knowing the obstacles that bar the way forward for your campaign can provide you with some insights and inspire creative ways of winning your election.
Let’s take a look at some specific challenges faced by unaffiliated candidates at each level of government.
Local elections are often seen as the proving ground for political talent. In fact, some local offices require no party affiliation at all. For example, school board officials and city council members are non-partisan. As such, local elections offer independent and third-party candidates a more accessible entry point into the world of politics.
However, even at the local level there are formidable barriers that can deter or obstruct non-mainstream candidates. For example, there are issues with:
Limited Resources: Local elections may appear less costly compared to their state or national counterparts, but funding is still a significant issue. Independent and third-party candidates often struggle to secure the financial backing necessary to run effective campaigns because they lack the financial infrastructure of major parties.
Ballot Access Requirements: In many localities, the process of getting on the ballot can be onerous. Petition requirements, filing fees, and other bureaucratic hurdles can consume valuable time and resources, potentially discouraging independent candidates from running.
Media Coverage: Local media outlets may prioritize major party candidates by giving them more exposure. As a result, independent candidates often struggle to get their message out to the community due to limited access to media coverage.
Voter Perceptions: As a society, we’ve been conditioned to view even local elections through a partisan lens. Overcoming the perception that independent or third-party candidates are "spoilers" or "protest votes" can be challenging, as it often requires significant grassroots organizing and community outreach.
Moving up to state elections presents a new set of challenges for independent and third-party candidates. These barriers tend to be more entrenched and difficult to surmount, including:
Major Party Dominance: As with national races, state politics are often dominated by the two major parties. These parties have extensive networks, institutional support, and resources that can be difficult for independent and third-party candidates to match.
Signature Requirements: To appear on the ballot, candidates must gather a certain number of signatures. This requirement can be daunting since it necessitates significant grassroots mobilization, time, and resources.
Campaign Financing Laws: State campaign finance laws can be restrictive, limiting the ability of independent candidates to raise and spend money. This further exacerbates the funding disparity between independent candidates and major party candidates.
Debates and Forums: In many states, independent and third-party candidates are excluded from official debates and candidate forums. This denies unaffiliated candidates a crucial platform to reach voters and articulate their positions.
Gerrymandering: District boundaries are usually drawn to favor major parties, making it challenging for independent candidates to find favorable electoral terrain.
Running for a national office like the presidency is the pinnacle of political ambition. In addition to the usual challenges, independent and third-party candidates who dare to compete at this level face the most formidable barriers of all. These include:
Meeting Ballot Access Requirements: Meeting the requirements to appear on the ballot in all 50 states is a Herculean task. Each state has its own rules, deadlines, and signature thresholds, making it exceptionally challenging for non-mainstream candidates to gain nationwide access.
Combatting Media Exclusion: National debates and media coverage are largely controlled by major news networks, which tend to favor major party candidates. Independent and third-party candidates often struggle to secure airtime and debate participation.
Complying With Campaign Finance Laws: Federal campaign finance regulations can be especially burdensome for independent candidates. The need to compete with major party candidates' massive war chests can be an insurmountable obstacle.
Challenging Voter Perceptions: At the national level, the "spoiler" stigma is often amplified. Voters may be more reluctant to support independent or third-party candidates due to fears of splitting the vote and indirectly aiding a major party candidate they oppose.
Overcoming the Electoral College System: This may be the biggest hurdle of all, given our winner-take-all electoral system. In presidential elections, the Electoral College system can make it nearly impossible for independent candidates to secure the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. This system effectively discourages third-party candidates from running and winning.
That last point was highlighted by the candidacy of Ross Perot during the 1992 presidential election, in which he won 19% of the popular vote but failed to gain a single vote in the electoral college. In order to win a presidential election, you must get at least 270 electoral votes.
Whatever your election goal, barriers ranging from limited resources and restrictive ballot access requirements to media exclusion and voter perceptions, can stifle political diversity and discourage candidates from challenging the status quo.
In order to create a truly inclusive and representative democracy, it’s essential to address or remove these barriers. The solution should include campaign finance reform, easing ballot access requirements, promoting media diversity and fairness, and reevaluating our electoral systems.
However, there are some ways that independent candidates can work within the system we have to gain traction in their individual campaigns. For a start, we can devise actionable strategies that empower independent and third-party candidates to overcome the barriers they face and campaign successfully at the local, state, and national levels.
The more constituents begin to see independent and third-party candidates as viable, electable alternatives to the “lesser of two evils” syndrome, the more likely unaffiliated candidates are to find success in future elections.
Given the current state of our union, dismantling these barriers is the only way to truly open the doors to greater political competition and innovation. It's the best way to ensure that every citizen has a fair stake and a voice in the democratic process.
While the barriers may seem formidable, independent and third-party candidates can employ a range of strategies to not only navigate these obstacles but also build competitive campaigns. Read on to learn some actionable strategies that are tailored to each level of electioneering.
These are the best ways for unknown and untested candidates to get a foot in the political door and build name recognition. For example, Bernie Sanders began his political career as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, which paved the way for a successful tenure as Senator from that state and two very energizing runs for president.
At this level, focus on:
Grassroots Mobilization: Leverage the power of grassroots organizing and community engagement. Build a network of dedicated volunteers who can help with petition drives, door-knocking, and local events to increase visibility.
Addressing Local Issues: Highlight your unique understanding of and commitment to local issues. Showcase your expertise in addressing the concerns that matter most to your constituents.
Leveraging Social Media: Maximize your online presence through social media platforms. Create compelling content and engage with your community to expand your reach and build a loyal following.
Collaborating with Like-Minded Groups: Partner with local organizations, advocacy groups, and community leaders who share your values. These alliances can provide valuable endorsements, resources, and support.
Whether you’re running for governor of your state, the state legislature, or Secretary of State, this is the level of governance for many who hope to enact more durable, far-reaching change within their communities. Often, it’s the next logical step for moving on to the national stage.
You can make a name for yourself by:
Initiating an Early Campaign Start: Begin your campaign early to have ample time for fundraising and organizing. Build a robust campaign infrastructure with experienced staff and volunteers.
Launching a Signature Gathering Campaign: Devote significant resources to meet signature requirements well in advance of deadlines. Develop a comprehensive plan to efficiently collect the necessary signatures.
Crafting Your Campaign Finance Strategy: Develop a creative and efficient campaign finance strategy. Utilize online fundraising platforms, explore public financing options if available, and tap into a network of small-dollar donors.
Conducting Media Outreach: While mainstream media may be selective, harness the power of alternative media, social media, and online influencers to reach a broader audience. Seek interviews, podcasts, and digital platforms that align with your message.
Participating in Debates and Forums: Pressure organizers to include all qualified candidates in debates and forums. Launch a public awareness campaign if necessary to highlight the importance of an inclusive discussion.
What can an aspiring candidate do when they're eager to impact their country in a positive way but their name isn’t Kennedy, Clinton, or Bush? They can work their way up from state or local politics, sans nepotism, or build a strong campaign through:
Strategic Ballot Access: Prioritize ballot access by assembling a dedicated team to navigate the complex requirements in each state. Invest resources early in states with significant electoral impact.
Building a Strong Campaign Team: Assemble a team of experienced campaign professionals who understand the intricacies of running a national campaign. A seasoned campaign manager, media strategist, and communications director are essential.
Fundraising and Compliance: Develop a comprehensive fundraising plan that leverages online platforms, individual donations, and, if applicable, public financing. Ensure strict compliance with federal campaign finance regulations.
Alternative Media and Third-Party Debates: Take advantage of third-party debates, podcasts, and alternative news outlets that provide a platform for non-mainstream candidates. Engage in these forums to reach potential supporters.
Collaboration and Coalition Building: Form strategic alliances with other independent and third-party candidates at various levels of government. Pool resources and share best practices to amplify your collective impact.
Educational Campaigning: Focus on educating voters about the issues, your qualifications, and the importance of political diversity. Combat the "spoiler" stigma by emphasizing the value of choice in a democracy.
While independent and third-party candidates undoubtedly face significant barriers in their election campaigns, proactive strategies can help level the playing field. By mobilizing grassroots support, strategically managing resources, and creatively using alternative media, these candidates can defy the odds and contribute to a more vibrant and diverse political landscape.
Success may not always mean winning the election outright; it can also be measured by raising or spotlighting important issues, expanding the political discourse, and paving the way for future non-mainstream candidates.
By persistently and strategically pursuing these actionable strategies, independent and third-party candidates can make a meaningful impact on the political process and the communities they seek to represent.
Good Party is helping real people like you run and win elections all over the country. Take the first step by joining us and partnering with experienced political strategists who have the tech and the knowledge to take your political aspirations to the next level.