Published Date Written by Craig LyonsThere are two ways to win an election: One is to win the office and the other is to refocus the political dialogue.
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein said she recognizes that it's unlikely that a third party can take the White House but at least another presence in the election can turn attention to the voters who are fed up with the current policies of the two major parties.
"We're in at a unique breaking point moment right now," said Stein, during an interview with the Daily Sun. "People are ready to turn that breaking point into a tipping point."
Aside from Democratic President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, this fall's election features challengers from two third parties: Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.
Stein said it's been proven in the past that small movements can grow and have an impact on the national political discussion.
"That is the power of independent politics," she said.
Ron Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said the most influential function of third parties has historically been affecting a change within the two major parties.
Historically, Schmidt said, third parties have evolved out of division within one of the two major political parties.
One example is the Bull Moose Party that split from the GOP in 1912, according to Schmidt, and met some success with the electorate though that might have been because of the popularity of Theodore Roosevelt.
Another case came in 1945 when the Dixiecrats split from the Democratic Party. Schmidt said the group of Southern Democrats objected to the party's stance on segregation.
Schmidt said most often when a third party gains traction it's because of a split within a major party.
Ross Perot's independent candidacy in 1992 is a case where a third party candidate didn't come from within a major political party.
Schmidt said Perot became a serious candidate through his ability to get his message to resonate with voters and his willingness to spend a lot of money to mount a presidential campaign.
Despite the examples of third parties developing, Schmidt said, historically, there aren't many examples where the candidates have been elected to a major office. There are exceptions, he said, like Bernie Sanders in Vermont.
The biggest influence of third parties is the impact they can have on the dialogue and policies of the two major parties, according to Schmidt.
"That can work out well for them," he said. "It can force their ideas on the agenda of one of the two major parties."
Third parties play an important function in making the major parties respond to issues, said Schmidt.
If a third party candidate draws 3 percent of the vote in an election, Schmidt said, those are voters that the major parties want on their side.
That's the case with the supporters of Ron Paul, said Schmidt, because the Republican Party incorporated some of his policies into the platform to hold onto that portion of the electorate.
When it comes to Third Party candidates, all the parties have to work to engage the voters who lack an enthusiasm for the major candidates.
Schmidt said if a Republican voter favored Rick Santorum during the primaries and isn't enthralled with either Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, they might stay home instead of voting.
"In an election year like this one, it's just too risky," he said.
The parties are all working to engage that sect of voters, said Schmidt, and that might mean tweaking the message to lure them back into the fold.
That lack of enthusiasm for the major candidates could have an effect on the election, according to Schmidt.
A Paul supporter might stay home instead of voting, said Schmidt, or it's possible they'd choose to support a Libertarian candidate instead of Romney.
Given that many polls are predicting a very close race between Obama and Romney, Schmidt said, the possibility of people voting for a third party candidate could impact the election.
If third party candidates can mobilize a lot of voters, Schmidt said, the Republicans and Democrats might have to address the issues and concerns of those people to keep those votes.
"I feel that might very well have an effect," he said.