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November 30, 2005

Success of Third-Party Candidates
Hinges Upon Three Factors, Study Finds

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Name recognition, an ability to spend significant sums of money and access to the media spell victory for third-party candidates, according to a new study by a Smith College government professor.

Published online in The Social Science Journal and available in the December print edition, the study contradicts earlier research that suggests certain kinds of voters are predisposed to vote for third-party candidates.

“Money, name recognition and access to media are the precondition of third-party success,” said Howard J. Gold, study author and associate professor of government. “And it’s hard to overstate the importance of money, which allows candidates to wage competitive campaigns by buying media time and maintaining a visible presence.”

Gold studied four gubernatorial elections during the 1990s in which third-party candidates were successful: In 1990, Walter Hickel of Alaska and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut; 1994, Angus King of Maine; and 1998, Jesse Ventura of Minnesota.

With the exception of independents and those who have previously voted for a third-party candidate, there was little that bound citizens who supported third-party candidates. Specifically, there was no consistent relationship between voters’ age, race, gender, education, income, economic anxiety and their support for the third-party candidate. Some of the voters who sent third-party candidates to office were registered Democrats, and others, Republicans.

Instead, the critical shared characteristics were among the candidates.

Whether known for success in politics or another field, each candidate had name recognition among voters. Weicker was a former senator, Hickel a former governor and former secretary of the interior. King and Ventura were recognized for careers outside of politics—King as the host of a longtime public affairs program on Maine public television, and Ventura for success as a professional wrestler.

The candidates also had money to spend on their campaigns, an asset that is lacking with most third-party candidates, said Gold. Hickel, Weicker and King were all able to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to their own campaigns. Ventura made use of Minnesota’s public financing policy.

Access to media was another characteristic enjoyed by the candidates. In each case, the candidate’s entry into the race made headlines around the state. Each candidate also aired television ads and participated in televised debates with major party rivals.

Not surprisingly, in the four gubernatorial elections, three of the successful candidates were fiscal conservatives and social liberals, an ideological profile that many voters find appealing, said Gold.

To view Gold's article online:

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