A glance at Ohio's May primary ballot reveals something unusual - an increased number of alternative-party candidates who have abandoned the traditional Democratic and Republican parties to run under the Libertarian, Constitution and Green party banners, to name a few.
A glance at Ohio's May primary ballot reveals something unusual — an increased number of alternative-party candidates who have abandoned the traditional Democratic and Republican parties to run under the Libertarian, Constitution and Green party banners, to name a few.
Dr. John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron said there are always a number of "minor party candidates."
"There's often a third, a fourth, a fifth party," Green said. "As popular as the two-party system is overall, it's never completely popular with everybody."
Green said the Republican and Democratic parties have trust issues to resolve with the electorate.
"If you think about the current situation we are in now, there are very low levels of trust in all political institutions, including the Democrats and Republicans," he said. "We know from the past that when we get into situations like that and the major parties are less popular, you see an increase in the number of minor-party candidates."
Eric Boehme, Denison University assistant professor of political science, said the rise of alternative parties isn't unprecedented.
"I would definitely say it's due to voter dissatisfaction with the two-party system," Boehme said. "But I think, historically, we also see that whenever there is a severe economic downturn or recession, third parties tend to get a lot more support."
Third-party movements similar to those of the early 1900s have resurfaced on several occasions.
"We had a strong third party in the 1980 election after the economic downturn of the 1970s with the OPEC oil crisis," Boehme said. "The strength of the Green Party in the 2000 election was indicative of the bubble bursting on tech stocks. So there's definitely a relationship between people being dissatisfied with the two parties and an economic downturn."
Boehme said he sees some validity to claims that a vote for right-leaning alternative-party candidates is in reality a vote for the more liberal Democratic Party.
"That's probably true because the way that our districting system is set up, with the first-past-the-post, winner-take-all, majority-rule districting system, it's very, very difficult for any third party to get someone elected," Boehme said. "Historically, there have been very few independent or third-party candidates who get into national office. It's a little bit easier at the state and local level, but it's very, very difficult to get into national office as a third-party candidate because of the way that the system works."
Green said alternative candidates can have an impact on either side of the political aisle.
"It works on the liberal side as well," Green said. "You hear Democrats says that a vote for the Green Party is in effect a vote for the Republicans and in really close elections that can be true. Many minor party candidates don't win but they can affect who does win by the votes that they attract."
Defining exactly what direction a Libertarian candidate leans can be difficult, Green said.
"There may seem to be more complaints on the conservative side than the liberal side right now, but a Libertarian could be seen as both conservative and liberal, depending on what issue you're talking about. On economic issues, Libertarians, most people would classify them on the conservative side but when you think about something like abortion or same-sex marriage, they're probably on the liberal side."
Boehme said it's no coincidence that the May primary ballot in Ohio has an increased number of Libertarian and Constitution Party candidates.
"They are tactically and pragmatically judging that they are going to have a better chance of getting into office at the state and local level," he said. "Around the nation there has been a kind of relaxing of requirements for a third party to get on the ballot in the first place, so it's a little bit easier for alternative parties to get on the ballot. Of course, the two main parties are going to try to keep those alternative parties off the ballot as much as they can because it does cut into their constituencies and their voting electorate."
Boehme said the Republican Party currently faces the greater threat from alterative-party challengers.
"I do agree that the Republicans are worried about the Libertarian and Constitution Party and Tea Party folks," Boehme said. "There's kind of a revolt from the right, and they are worried that it is going to fragment their constituency for the mid-term elections, and they won't be able to come together in a kind of coalition to take back the House and the Senate and then a couple of years down the road take back the presidency."
Boehme said the Tea Party movement isn't unique.
"There have been past precedents in terms of populist anger against the two-party system or populist anger against the elites," he said. "What is new, however, is that this populist anger is not from disaffected or poor people, as we saw in the late 19th century.
"The vast majority of the Tea Party folks are pretty well-off, middle class, upper-middle class, predominantly white, a lot of males over 45," he said. "There is a New York Times poll that talks about this movement demographically being older, white, male and predominantly pretty conservative in their ideological views. This isn't disaffected poor folks. This is, at least in my view, a group of people that feels that their class status is threatened, their status as upper-middle-class folks and their status as white folks."
Green disagrees with Boehme's status argument.
"I'm always suspicious of status arguments," Green said. "A simpler explanation is that people have political values. It's about the basic values that people have."
Green said individuals acting to protect their self interests should be expected.
"Almost everybody in politics pursues their self interest," Green said. "I went to a Tea Party rally by accident once. I put on my social science hat and wandered around and interviewed people. My impression, at least from that, was that they are pretty diverse politically. They were a pretty diverse bunch. Some of them that I talked to were pro life. Some of them were Second Amendment advocates."
Green said Tea Party supporters remind him of Ross Perot's Reform Party followers.
"In a lot of ways, what the Tea Party supporters remind me of are the Ross Perot supporters in the early 1990s," Green said. "There's a similar emphasis on economic issues and concern about the scope and size of government are something the Perot activists and the Tea Party people have in common."
Boehme said 18 percent of people have identified themselves as Tea Party supporters.
"This is a very vocal minority," he said. "They get a lot of press because the media loves the kind of populist anger that makes for good television, like the town-hall meetings where people are standing up and expressing their viewpoints."
He described the Tea Party movement as extra-electoral politics.
"It's on the ground," he said. "It's grassroots. It's protest. It's people voicing their dissent. It hasn't yet filtered into electoral politics. I think we're definitely going to see that with mid-term elections coming up. We might have seen a little bit of that with Scott Brown being elected in Massachusetts."