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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Vermin Supreme is sidled up to a bowl of cottage pie in a dimly lit bar here in Manchester. A half-dozen ties dangle from his neck, and the black rubber boot he wears as a hat is resting in his lap. Suddenly, two young men interrupt him: “Excuse us, Mr. President, can we get a photo?” Supreme gladly obliges, hoisting the boot onto his head for the photo op.
“Sometimes, you get the feeling that it could happen, I could be president, just because of the excitement of people on the street,” the Democratic presidential candidate says. “It creates this incredible illusion that they’re joining my delusions. It’s a beautiful thing that so many people are willing to suspend disbelief.”
Vermin Supreme is probably the most colorful candidate canvassing New Hampshire in advance of the presidential primary on Tuesday. But he’s not alone on the undercard. Beneath the nationally televised debates and the front-page headlines lies a host of lesser-known candidates trying – with varying degrees of success – to get their message out to voters. Some are running for the Democratic or Republican nominations but don’t have enough of a following to garner national attention. Others are running on third-party tickets, or positioning themselves as independent alternatives.
“I think I can come out on top of the fringies this time,” Supreme told Al Jazeera.
To be sure, 2016 marks Supreme’s third New Hampshire primary. His campaign is less a serious electoral bid than protest or performance art. His platform includes a mandatory tooth-brushing law, zombie apocalypse preparedness and a free pony for every American.
With all the money the United States spends fighting wars, Supreme asks rhetorically, why not buy every American a pony?
But for other lesser-known candidates, this election is fully in earnest. They may not win but they — and their parties — are running to highlight issues of huge importance. Jill Stein is a Harvard-trained physician who was the Green Party’s presidential nominee in 2012. A resident of Lexington, Mass., Stein also ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and 2010. Now she’s running for the Green Party’s 2016 presidential nomination.
The Green Party is a left-wing political group that fields candidates for local, state and national office. Stein argues that the Democratic and Republican parties are too embedded with corporate interests, keeping them from really tackling urgent issues like income inequality and climate change.
“While there are differences between the two parties, they’re not enough to save your job or to save your life,” Stein says.
Stein’s platform includes single-payer healthcare, a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, public banks and utilities, cutting military spending by 50 percent, abolishing student debt and using the federal government to create jobs for the unemployed.
Some of that bears more than a passing resemblance to policies proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Stein called the independent Vermont senator’s campaign “inspiring.” But Stein is adamant about the need to step outside of the two-party system, which she says co-opts progressive campaigns into a Democratic party that ultimately serves its wealthy donors at the expense of working people.
The Green Party itself came under heavy criticism after the 2000 presidential election, when many Democrats accused its presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, of splitting off a fraction of the progressive vote and handing the election to George W. Bush.
It’s a common argument — that elections are about deciding between the lesser of two evils. But Stein rejects the idea out of hand. Running against Republicans instead of for a vision of what America can be is a losing strategy in the long run, Stein says.
“The ‘lesser evil’ paves the way to the ‘greater evil,’ because people don’t come out to vote against their fears,” Stein says.
‘While there are differences between the two parties, they’re not enough to save your job or to save your life.’
presidential candidate, Green Party
Darryl Perry is on the other end of the ideological spectrum from Stein, but he’s no less disaffected with the two-party system. The radio producer from Keene, N.H., is running for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination. Perry has run for mayor and even U.S. Senate in the past, he says, but this is his first try for the highest office in the land.
“Winning would be nice, but that is secondary, to me, to the primary reason I ever run for political office,” Petty explains. “The primary reason is to promote the ideas of liberty.”
For Perry, “liberty” means that no person has more rights than another — a principle he says should range from individual citizens to interactions between people and their government. That has major consequences for everything — from what is and isn’t legal, to what the government can regulate, and whether the government can collect taxes.
It’s an idea Perry takes seriously. He has refused to formally file with the Federal Elections Commission because he believes they do not have a legitimate right to exist or to regulate campaign funding.
Since 2003, the Free State Project has been encouraging libertarians to commit to moving to New Hampshire and establishing “a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty and property,” according to the group’s website. On Feb. 3, the Free State Project announced that 20,000 people had taken its pledge.
Despite that reputation, Perry says many libertarians in New Hampshire have criticized him for not working within the Republican or Democratic party. Many libertarians in the Granite State are throwing their support behind one of the Republican candidates, but he does not believe that path squares with libertarian principles.
“I don't think that you can call yourself a libertarian and support someone like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio,” he explains.
But if there’s one thing Perry and Stein agree on, it’s that the current election system heavily favors the two established political parties.
The Libertarian and Green parties won't have primaries in New Hampshire on Tuesday. While they do have primaries in some other states, those primaries aren't binding. Delegates are free to vote as they will, and the nominating really happens at their respective conventions. That said, the candidates those parties nominate will be on the ballot in many states come November.
The Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party both had presidential candidates on New Hampshire ballots in the 2012 general election. To get on the ballot again this cycle, third parties have to collect 3,000 voter signatures — 1,500 in each of New Hampshire's two congressional districts — by early August. According to the N.H. Secretary of State's office, no one has submitted signatures yet. But that's expected — it's still early in the process.
For his part, Perry is looking for a New Hampshire state rep who will champion ballot-access legislation that would change that, he said. Meanwhile, the Green Party is actually working with the Libertarian Party on legal challenges to rules that keep third parties out of national presidential debates, says Stein. Both approaches have the same goal: Giving the Republicans and Democrats fresh competition for votes.
“If one cannot do the right thing because the political system is too entrenched,” Stein says, “it’s time to get rid of that system.”