“WEAVER CAPTURES NEVADA” read the headline in the New York Times on November 10, 1892.
It was a first-and-only moment in the state’s history. People’s Party presidential nominee James Weaver, running on the Nevada Silver Party line, won the state’s electoral votes in a landslide. Though the Times said he won only a plurality, in fact he swept up a massive majority, swamping his three opponents and their parties combined.
It happened once. Could it happen again? Not if Joseph Silvestri is to be believed. Two days before the Libertarian Party of Nevada held a Nov. 16 state convention, party chair Joseph Silvestri posted a message on his website:
“After more than a decade trying to help build the LPN into a viable political organization that could compete with the establishment parties, and get Libertarians elected, I have conceded defeat. I’ve grown tired of (fill in the blank), the list is endless. … In the past, I’ve worked to support myself and a team of quality activists get elected and work to grow the party. But not this time, I’m done. I’ve decided to not seek any officer position. Unable to build a large enough coalition of support to justify further efforts, I accept reality. I yield the field to the knuckleheads. I am exhausted from the endless stupid drama that prevents our party from achieving critical mass. … You should understand I don’t really blame the knuckleheads. I blame the good decent folks who really want to see a viable third choice on Election Day, but do nothing to further that end.”
With 10,729 registered voters, the Libertarians are the state’s fourth largest political party.
The Libertarians, unlike other third parties like the American Independent and Reform parties, was built around a philosophy, not a candidate. But neither method seems to be a good route to the mainstream, at least in the modern era. One commentator thinks that might be changing. National political analyst Rhodes Cook put the possibility of a third party on the cover of his latest Rhodes Cook Letter, and observed:
“Any new third party nowadays would likely come from one of two sources—another split in Republican ranks with the ’Tea Party’ veering off from the party establishment; or a Perot-like entity carved out of the disaffected political center. No doubt, creating a viable third party from either source would not be easy. Elections at the federal and state levels continue to grow more and more expensive. And ballot access can be consuming enough for an independent or third party presidential candidate, let alone for a party that is also running scores of candidates for Congress and other offices. … But it would probably not be impossible in an era when the two major parties appear to be continually dropping the ball. In short, this could very well be that rare occasion in American history when it just could happen.”
Others say the obstacles are greater than the disgust with the existing choices.
“Insurmountable,” political analyst Fred Lokken said. “You’d think voters would want to shake the tree, but we just don’t. … Sure there are voters who are disgruntled with Republicans and Democrats, but they don’t generally vote for third parties.”
One of the biggest obstacles to third parties is election laws. In most states, the dominant political parties have reduced access to the ballot through a myriad of signature requirements or other mechanisms. Indeed, election laws have given political parties primacy over those who want straight politics without parties.
For example, state presidential electors—the members of the electoral “college,” though there is no actual collegial group—are now selected by political parties, instead of by the voting public or legislatures, as originally done by the founding generation. And in many states including Nevada, electors are bound to vote for their party rather than serving as the free agents the founders intended.
Ballot access laws are often incredibly burdensome and spark legal action. “The election laws are engineered to be sure third parties don’t win,” Lokken said.
An indication of how onerous election laws can be for third parties came in 1968 when George Wallace of Alabama created the American Independent Party as a vehicle for his candidacy. In the important state of California not just signatures were needed—66,000 voters had to be convinced to actually register to vote as members of the AIP. One Wallace supporter said, “I tell you, Alabama was just about deserted. The whole state just lit out for California. … I tell you, there wasn’t a lawyer left in town.” In Nevada, the effort to get Wallace’s name on the ballot was led by the late Daniel Hansen, who changed the party’s name here to Independent American. Wallace received 13.2 percent of the vote in Nevada, and his party has been on the ballot for most of the years since.
In 1980, running as an independent, not a third party candidate, John Anderson had to lay out huge amounts of money for lawyers to battle Democratic Party efforts to keep him off the ballot, the assumption being that he would draw votes away from Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. “All of the energies and resources of Anderson’s campaign went to getting on the ballot,” Lokken said. “John Anderson mortgaged his house” to pay for ballot access.
One of the best indications of the uphill fight for third party and independent candidates came last year when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg floated some trial balloons about his running for president. “He had the money, but when he took a look at how tough it would be, he stopped talking about that crazy third party bid,” Lokken said.
“Party affiliation is so strong with enough people that the Republicans and Democrats, no matter who their candidates were, no matter who voted, would get enough votes that you could get every independent vote, it would still not be a majority,” Bloomberg said.
Lokken said just because outside candidates don’t win doesn’t mean they don’t have impact. Sometimes they serve as spoilers. In 1992 and 1996, Ross Perot had the money to get his Reform Party on the ballot, and his conservative candidacy helped draw votes from the Republican candidates and elect Bill Clinton by less than a majority both times.
If a new third party were to become well established in Nevada, the small counties would probably have a role. While the Democrats are the second largest party in voter registration, Republicans have become so dominant in those counties that the Democrats sometimes cannot scrape up candidates—but the Independent American Party does. After the 2010 election, IAP leader Janine Hansen—who lives in Ryndon, east of Elko—said her party had displaced the Democrats as the principal competition to the GOP.
“There were no Democrats on the ballot in Elko County local races, except my Assembly race,” she said. “We fielded numerous candidates. That was the same in many rural counties. If the Democrats cannot even field any candidates, and we garnered significantly more votes than them in the only race they participated in, in Elko County, that makes us the de facto second party in Elko County.”
The IAP actually won some offices in the small counties—public administrator in Nye County, district attorney in Esmeralda, a county commissioner in White Pine, and clerk treasurer in Eureka.
“The result is in the nature of a revolution,” the New York Times reported of Weaver’s Nevada 1892 victory. But revolutions don’t exactly come along every election.