Only two men took the stage last Wednesday night in Denver, but when Colorado residents go to vote, they will find a laundry list of presidential candidates on the ballot.
As in 2008, Colorado has 16 candidates listed, the most of any state. Others, such as Oklahoma, are far more restrictive, allowing only incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Also qualifying for the Colorado ballot are Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Partys Jill Stein, both with registered minor parties, and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, which, thanks to Tom Tancredos rogue 2010 gubernatorial run, for now deemed a major party here.
Eleven other candidates simply had to submit a letter of intent and a $500 filing fee. No petition of signatures is required.
Such loose eligibility criteria means the crop of contenders is a motley bunch, including Ayn Rand devotee Tom Stevens of the Objectivist Party, actress Roseanne Barr with the socialist-leaning Peace and Freedom Party and Merlin Miller of the blatantly white nationalist group American Third Position.
Rocky Anderson, the progressive former Salt Lake City mayor in staunchly conservative Utah, is trying to tap into voter disaffection by marketing himself as an outside-the-box free thinker.
A few of the listed parties actually individuals, with no centralized headquarters and party names that are just made up said Andrew Cole, spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Theres also a blank space for write-in candidates, if none of the 16 strikes a chord.
Deck stacked against them
The United States uses a single-member district, or winner takes all, election system, meaning candidates for state and national office need only a plurality (not a majority) of votes to win a certain jurisdiction. As a result, minor parties have a long shot to put it mildly of capturing the presidency. They also lack an army of wealthy donors, a vast network of volunteers and daily media exposure ingredients essential to the modern campaign.
But in a swing state like Colorado, minor-party candidates could potentially divvy up enough votes to tip the scale .
(A third-party) vote (for president) is only wasted if your only goal is winning the election, said Colin Glennon, assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College. Your candidate wont win, but you can siphon votes from the two major parties. We saw it with Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000.
Supporting a minor-party candidate also serve to elevate the profile of that candidate or the principles he or she espouses.
If you are voting for some purpose with intrinsic value, then voting (for) third parties is not a waste at all, Glennon said.
Minor parties tend to view the long-standing supremacy of the Republicans and Democrats as an artificial constraint that limits the discourse to policy ideas deemed safe. If their own ideas were given a legitimate hearing, they argue, they could attract wider support.
If politics in America were football, the entire game would be played between the 45-yard lines, said Jeff Orrok, state chairman of the Libertarian Party of Colorado. The major parties create a lot of hoopla to try and polarize people, but as far as the actual content of their policies and the outcomes theyve generated, they are near identical. Neither has worked.
Orrok believes the dual Libertarian philosophy of civil liberties and fiscal belt-tightening could appeal to people coming from the political left and right, and, of course, the highly coveted one-third of Coloradoans who are unaffiliated.
Governor Johnson would submit a balanced budget to Congress. Neither major party has a credible plan to do that for years down the road. He endorsed Colorados Amendment 64 legalizing marijuana use, and he stands for marriage equality, Orrok said.
The Green Party, which advocates decentralized local governance and sustainability, likewise considers its ideas palatable beyond its environmentalist base.
Our operations are cooperative and agreement-seeking. There is more working together versus infighting and debating, said Bill Bartlett, co-chairman for the Greens Colorado chapter. We also decline corporate money. We have never taken it and never will. We dont write corporate-based legislation. Public opinion is with us on that.
The Greens and Libertarians agreed that media coverage, or lack of it, perpetuates the anonymity of their candidates. Orrok likened the current debate format to a choreographed spectacle of half truths, short sound bites and tit-for-tat squabbling.
The biggest challenge is simple name recognition, he said. As it stands, the format pits the incumbents the establishment against the rest of us. They grind along, getting us deeper into debt, withholding civil liberties. Across the board, you have public outcry about the status quo. The mainstream media is remiss in overlooking these voices.
Bartlett agreed: If (Jill Stein) was allowed on stage, I guarantee youd see an influx of voters aligning with us. Right now, theyve got a clamp on everything.
In the Balance
Long a GOP stronghold of the last 10 presidential elections, it chose the Republican nominee eight times Colorado went strongly blue in 2008. The latest numbers suggest a closely contested race this time around. Obama held an average 3-point edge in September opinion polls, according to RealClearPolitics. Post-debate figures released Friday by the research firm Gravis Marketing showed the tables had turned, with Romney taking over the lead. Most polls fall within the margin of error.
Glennon doubted that the sheer quantity of fringe candidates on the Colorado ballot would be a decisive factor at some point, it becomes a case of diminishing returns, he said but he agreed that larger third-party groups could make inroads given the contempt many Americans profess for Washington.
They can impact an election most significantly with a charismatic entrepreneur as their candidate, he said. When this is not the case, third parties rely on voter dissatisfaction with the major-party choices.