Jayne: 3rd-party candidates face uphill battles in Washington

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

On Thursday, two days after the primary, Chris Rockhold was literally picking up the remnants of his campaign.

"I'm out picking up the signs," said Rockhold, who ran as a Libertarian for state representative from the 17th District, Position 2.

Symbolically, however, Rockhold's campaign was anything but shattered. Competing in a three-person race that included incumbent Paul Harris, Rockhold received 10 percent of the vote.

That might not sound like much, especially for a candidate who is articulate and is well-versed on the issues and had spent much time campaigning. But the fact that Rockhold and his party leaders were viewing the effort as a success points out the difficult task facing third-party candidates.

"Republicans and Democrats, they get automatic votes," said C. Michael Pickens, chairman of the state's Libertarian Party. "That's just the name of the game." Which doesn't make a lot of sense. Polls show that both Republicans and Democrats are about as popular as Ebola these days, but when the pen hits the paper people reflexively vote for what they know.

So, what would it take for a third party to make some inroads in this country? What is keeping the two-party system entrenched?

"Our election system, mainly that we have single-representative districts," said Jim Moore, political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. By comparison, Moore explained, all members of Israel's congress, the Knesset, are selected in a national election. If one party receives 30 percent of the vote, it has 30 percent of the Knesset members, a system that encourages third and fourth and fifth parties.

Is such a system superior to that of the United States? I don't know; this one has served us pretty well for 225 years. But as dissatisfaction with the two major parties grows, more and more people are longing for more and more alternatives when it comes time to vote.

"The argument in the United States is that we do have a multi-party system," Moore said. "The ideas in those third parties get incorporated into the major parties." But, he also pointed out, "No other country has adopted our electoral system."

The United States, Moore said, has seen the rise of one third party in its history — the Republicans in the 1850s. The conditions that led to that: A singular issue (slavery), a singular candidate (Abraham Lincoln), and a split in one of the major parties (between northern and southern Democrats). If the rise of a third party results in a Civil War, we'd just as soon stick with a two-party system. But sometimes a third alternative can sound attractive.

Different from Tea Party

Meanwhile, Libertarians often find themselves explaining how their small-government message differs from that of the Republicans' Tea Party wing. "The Tea Party candidates are typically socially conservative," Pickens said. "We are pretty much pro-choice on every issue. People should be able to do what they want to do within reason, so long as it's not infringing upon the person, property, or rights of others."

That is a message that could resonate in Washington. Libertarians had 12 candidates in legislative races across the state Tuesday, and eight of them advanced to November's general election. But before you go waving the banner for a third-party revolution, consider that seven of those Libertarians were in two-person races, ensuring that they would reach the general election — where none of them have a chance of being elected. The eighth to advance was in a race against a Republican and a candidate who prefers the "Marijuana Party."

So, while the Libertarians can boast that they are more popular than the Marijuana Party, the battle continues against Republicans and Democrats.

"I think there are a lot of people in Washington who can identify with Libertarian values once we get the message out there," Rockhold said. "I'll be back in 2016 to run again."

And then he'll pick up the pieces of another campaign.