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Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader's 2000 run for the presidency was probably the last time a third-party candidate generated significant interest among American voters.

Presidential contenders including a self-identified Democratic socialist, a Republican who mainstream Republicans love to hate, and a reality TV star are proof the American voting public is unhappy with the two major parties, say the pundits.

I couldn’t help wondering what Wisconsin’s long-ignored third parties think about this year’s bizarro campaign. Do they see an opening for their candidates, or are their members interested in one of the outside-the-mainstream major-party folks? Maybe Greens for Sen. Bernie Sanders, or the Constitution Party for the Constitution-memorizing Sen. Ted Cruz.

A voter’s mind can run wild speculating about all the alternative political movements — past and present — that might support Donald Trump. Maybe as one of its least funny practical jokes ever, UW-Madison’s old Pail & Shovel Party would have endorsed him.

In Wisconsin, five political parties are assured slots on the 2016 presidential ballot, according to the Government Accountability Board: the Republican, Democratic, Green, Libertarian and Constitution parties.

Other parties wanting their names on the ballot will have to collect 10,000 signatures each, including at least 1,000 from at least three different congressional districts.

If they simply want their candidates’ names on the ballot as “independents,” they need to collect between 2,000 and 4,000 signatures.

Phil Anderson, state Libertarian Party vice chairman and candidate for the U.S. Senate, agrees that the current crop of major-party candidates is proof of voters’ disgust with the system.

“Voters in primaries aren’t actually choosing the candidates,” he said, when the parties’ nominating rules allows for the possibility of delegates voting for whichever candidates they want.

He considers the major-party primary process mostly an opportunity for the two major parties to raise money.

“What we’re seeing is that the party establishments are becoming obsolete,” said Dave Schwab, a member of the state Green Party coordinating council who works for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.

Schwab reports “already seeing surging interest in the Green Party this year,” as evidenced by the speed with which Stein reached the threshold for applying for federal campaign matching funds and the interest mainstream media outlets such as NBC and public broadcasting have shown in her campaign.

Former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson is a front-runner among those vying for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination, to be awarded at its May convention, Anderson said. Johnson was the Libertarians’ 2012 presidential nominee and by far the biggest winner among the third parties that year in Wisconsin, garnering more than 20,000 votes.

Stein — who appears to be leading four other Greens in the race for the party’s August nomination — also ran in 2012, bringing in the second-most votes, or 7,665, among third-party candidates in Wisconsin.

Mightn’t Greens and disaffected liberals in general be more likely to support Sanders this year, though — given that ideologically he’s probably closer to Stein than many mainstream Democrats, and actually has a shot at winning a major-party nomination?

Schwab didn’t necessarily think Greens would opt for Sanders over the Greens’ nominee but said he’s spoken to lots of people who were planning to vote for Sanders in the primary but support the Greens’ candidate in the general election should Sanders fail to get the Democratic nomination.

Similarly, Anderson said he’s already seeing signs Gary Johnson could be a popular “protest vote” for voters tired of the two-party system.

He also said there are fans of libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul — who dropped out of the Republican race in February — who might back Trump because he’s perceived as anti-establishment, but he sees no mass exodus of Libertarians to any of the major-party candidacies.

My attempts Friday to reach someone with the state Constitution Party weren’t successful, but Anderson said one of the causes most motivating Libertarians this year is getting American troops out of foreign military entanglements.

Schwab, meanwhile, pointed to Stein’s “Green New Deal,” which her website describes as an effort to “create millions of jobs by transitioning to 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable agriculture and conservation.”

They aren’t bad positions, and they certainly aren’t any more unrealistic than, say, making public higher ed free for students, or forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall.

In fact, if the major-party candidates on Election Day are today’s front-runners — i.e., a crude-talking, policy-free demagogue and an honesty-challenged member of a family that’s already had eight years in the White House — “wasting” your vote on a third-party candidate might feel downright refreshing.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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