Picking Their Spots: Minor Party Candidates in Gubernatorial Elections

By Lem, Steve B.; Dowling, Conor M. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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Picking Their Spots: Minor Party Candidates in Gubernatorial Elections


Lem, Steve B., Dowling, Conor M., Political Research Quarterly


Given the institutional bias against minor parties in the U.S., why do minor party candidates run for office? In this article, we seek to answer this question by developing a model of the choice to participate in gubernatorial elections by minor party candidates that takes into account both the political opportunities potential candidates have to participate and the legal hurdles they must overcome to do so. We test our theory using an event count model of the number of minor party candidates in gubernatorial elections from 1982 to 2000. We find that state electoral rules, such as ballot access restrictions, and the level of competition between the two major parties within the state matter the most. In other words, the decision to run as a third party gubernatorial candidate may be an individual one but it is structured in important ways by the institutional environment within which those decisions are made.

Minor party candidates in American politics rarely secure office, even if they manage to capture a noticeable percentage of votes. Rather, politics in the United States has operated under a two-party system since its foundation.1 Since the critical election of 1860 established the current two-party system of Democrats and Republicans, few minor party candidates have been elected to the House of Representatives, fewer to the Senate, and none have managed to capture the Presidency. This inability to win is often attributed to the United States' electoral structure. Specifically, both the use of single-member plurality elections (Duverger 1954; Riker 1982) and the nature of the presidential system (Cox 1997) tend to lead to and reinforce the two-party system. Thus, given that it is extremely difficult for minor party candidates to win elections, it is surprising that they choose to participate in the electoral process at all.

Yet, despite the electoral system bias against them, minor party candidates do continue to operate in the American political context. Rosenstone, Behr, and Lazarus (1996) attribute their existence (and some of their electoral success) to the ideological gaps created by major party competition. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, more than 15 million voters did not vote for Bush (Republican) or Gore (Democrat), demonstrating that a number of voters were looking for an alternative to what the two major parties had to offer. Furthermore, although institutional bias seems to be successful in barring third party candidates from national level offices, some minor party candidates have managed to capture offices on the state and local level. The Libertarian Party and the Green Party, for example, boasted 596 and 205 public offices respectively in 2003, albeit most of those offices were fairly low level ones (e.g., "School District Facilities Task Force Member" and "Town Recycling Committee Member").2

It seems, therefore, that some incentives exist for minor party candidates to seek office, especially at the state and local level. One office that minor party candidates often pursue is state governorships, which, with the exception of Minnesota's election of Jesse Ventura and a few others (e.g., Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. in Connecticut in 1990 and Angus S. King in Maine in 1994 and 1998), is typically dominated by the two major parties. This article aims to investigate gubernatorial elections with regard to minor party candidates and seeks to identify factors that contribute to individuals declaring candidacy under non-major party labels. More specifically, given the institutional bias against them, why would minor party candidates attempt to run for such a high state office? Further, given the low probability of electoral success, why do some elections see multiple minor party candidates?

To answer these questions, the article proceeds as follows. First, it briefly reviews some of the literature on minor party participation in the United States. Next, the article proposes a theory explaining what motivates third party candidacies.

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Picking Their Spots: Minor Party Candidates in Gubernatorial Elections
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