Fringe political candidates were once considered subjects for political humor by journalists. Their candidacies were never taken very seriously because their votes were inconsequential. However, in an era of social media manipulation, political “dark money” infusion into fringe campaigns, and computerized voting with razor-thin outcomes, fringe candidates can mean the difference between victory or defeat on election nights. This phenomenon materialized in the 2000 American presidential election, when the Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader tipped the election to Republican George W. Bush and against Democrat Al Gore in two critical states that Gore needed for victory: Florida and New Hampshire. Bush carried Florida by a mere 537 votes. Had Nader not run, 47 percent of his voters would have opted for Gore and only 21 percent for Bush.
The 2000 election ushered into existence the era of the externally-manipulated election. No longer was the franchise based on merely “one person, one vote,” but an entire panoply of other factors, including the relatively new impact of social media and its impact on raising the visibility of fringe candidates to the point where they could mean a difference in the election. Extremely close elections were once a rarity. Since 2000, close elections have become so numerous, their occurrence appears to be almost statistically impossible. However, for the fringe candidates, the opportunity to mean a difference has become a bonus.
Fringe candidates continue to play a role in close elections. In the recent Iowa Democratic Caucus, for example, former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg edged out Vermont Independent Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, himself a one-time perennial Trotskyist Social Workers’ Party and Liberty Union Party fringe candidate in Vermont, by .1 percent of the vote. California high-tech businessman Andrew Yang’s 1 percent and billionaire investor Tom Steyer’s .3 percent, while fringe and infinitesimal, may have tipped the razor-thin margin to Buttigieg.
The Vermont Liberty Union Party, founded by Sanders, Vermont US Representative William Meyer, and Peter Diamondstone in 1970, became a significant factor in Vermont politics, one that helped propel Sanders into national politics. The party was a hodgepodge of Marxist-Leninist Communists, democratic socialists, and anarcho-Communists. As a member of the national People’s Party coalition, Liberty Union endorsed such presidential candidates as Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1972; Margaret Wright in 1976, the Socialist Party’s David McReynolds in 1980, and a series of Socialist Workers and Communist candidates until 2016. Sanders was the only fringe candidate to make it into higher office in Vermont, first as mayor of Burlington, then as a US Representative, and finally, as a US Senator. His colleague, McReynolds, on the other hand, garnered a mere 136 votes in Vermont for president in 1980, just 18 votes ahead of Communist Party candidate Gus Hall and 61 ahead of the Socialist Workers’ Clifton DeBerry.
Names like David McReynolds, Margaret Wright, and Clifton DeBerry have long been relegated to the footnotes of history. But that was when fringe candidates had little to no impact on American elections, particularly considering the duopoly of election control long maintained by the Republican and Democratic Parties.
However, in a political environment where elections have become increasingly close, the fringe candidate has been seen by major political campaigns as a useful weapon, especially in slicing off the vote totals of opponents. In 2000 and 2004, high-end donors to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns were also donating to Nader’s back-to-back Green Party presidential runs. The gambit was noticed early on in 2000 by Eric Alterman in “The Nation” magazine. On October 25, just prior to the election, Alterman wrote, “Nader has been campaigning aggressively in Florida [get that – in Florida!], Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. If Gore loses even a few of those states, then Hello, President Bush.”
In a close presidential election this year, the Greens may again as spoilers in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Florida, all expected to be close, provided the Democratic candidate is neither untested in national politics nor a perennial fringe figure on the left.
In 1993, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was founded from the remnants of the Anti-Federalist League, which was opposed to the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Both the League and UKIP were fringe parties. However, UKIP, while never playing much of a role in the British Parliament, did manage to gain 24 seats in the European Parliament in 2014. That success set the stage for the successful “yes” vote in 2016 of the Brexit referendum, which was a vote for the UK to withdraw from the EU. UKIP and later, the Brexit Party of former UKIP standard bearer Nigel Farage, found a number of anti-EU allies inside the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labor. On January 1, 2020, the efforts of the Anti-Federalist League, UKIP, and the Brexit Party paid off when the UK formally withdrew from the EU. The June 23, 2016 referendum was, like several other elections in the era of social media, very close. The Leave campaign received 51.89 percent to the Remainers’ 46.11 percent.
It was subsequently discovered that the election manipulation firm Cambridge Analytica, along with its parent, SCL Group (founded in 1990 as the Behavioral Dynamics Institute), primarily bankrolled by two wealthy financiers, Robert Mercer of the United States and Arron Banks of Britain, engaged in systematic foreign and social media influence, microtargeting of voters, disinformation, and the sharing of data on behalf of the Leave campaign. Similar accusations were leveled against the now-defunct firm for manipulating other close elections, including the 2016 US presidential race, as well as 2012 Mexican presidential election between Enrique Peña Nieto of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Peña Nieto won the election 6.4 percent ahead of the wildly popular AMLO, who called the election fraudulent and refused to concede defeat.
After Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Peña Nieto’s Foreign Minister, Luis Videgaray, maintained an unusual cordial relationship with Trump’s Mexico-bashing son-in-law, Jared Kushner. There was little doubt that Kushner played a major role in Cambridge Analytica’s election malfeasance in 2016 on behalf of the Trump campaign. Kushner directed Trump’s 2016 digital campaign chief Brad Parscale to “try out” the services of Cambridge Analytica. Parscale is currently the 2020 campaign manager for Trump.
A fringe party “free market environmentalist” named Gabriel Quadri received 2.36 percent of the vote. It was later discovered that Cambridge Analytica election engineering, through social media influence operations and microtargeting, was backing Quadri’s fringe party candidacy. In 2018, AMLO won the presidential election in a landslide and he continues to govern with astronomically high favorability in opinion polls, a clue as to the external manipulation inherent in the 2012 election.
A successor company to Cambridge Analytica, Emerdata, was involved in the 2019 Australian election. In an upset victory, Liberal-National coalition Prime Minister Scott Morrison won re-election against the Labor Party. The right-wing coalition defeated Labor by 41.44 percent to 33.34 percent, a surprise victory, with 10.23 percent going to the Green Party, thus denying a Labor win. The presence of other fringe parties that accounted for an additional total 4.19 percent of the vote helped the Australian right win another election that the opinion polls predicted would go to Labor. Fringe parties and election manipulation companies, once again, provided a toxic brew for conducting a free and fair election. It is particularly noteworthy that on Emerdata’s board is a business associate of Erik Prince, the founder of the US mercenary company Blackwater and the brother of Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.
Cambridge Analytica and its offshoots have had a propensity for assisting anti-democratic and corrupt candidates achieve victories. They include Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, Joseph Muscat in Malta, Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria, Narendra Modi in India, and Najib Razak in Malaysia.
Such election operations are particularly successful in countries where there are a multitude of small political parties, particularly in India, where Cambridge Analytica had been extensively involved with elections in Bihar, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. In addition to Emerdata, some of Cambridge’s election manipulators transitioned to new companies, including Data Propria, in which Parscale has a major interest, Auspex International, and Anaxi Solutions, the latter having been absorbed by Emerdata.
Social media has permitted election engineers and manipulators to increase the profile of fringe parties and candidates at the expense of established parties of the left and center-left, particularly those that threaten the vested interests of the ruling elites. Even parties that claim to represent the working class have fallen victim to such manipulative tactics. The 2020 US presidential, congressional, gubernatorial election will be no exception nor will scheduled elections this year in South Korea, Romania, Bolivia, Belize, New Zealand, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vanuatu, as well as the Chuuk and New Caledonia independence referenda.