Every presidential election, year after year, the third party candidates emerge out of nowhere, offering themselves as alternatives to the "Establishment" candidates. And every presidential election, the same mantra goes around: Sure, they might not win the election, but if enough people have the guts to "vote your conscience, not your fears," then maybe they will at least gain the magical five percent of the vote that will boost them into major party status, thereby gaining the funding and exposure to be a Real Contender the next time around.
Thing is, making additional parties become Real Contenders isn't really about the money, or the exposure. It's about the lack of foundation upon which these presidential candidacies are built.
It's like the fantasy many people harbor about winning the lottery or gaining a similar financial windfall: If only they had X amount of money, all of their problems would be solved. And time and again we see, from experience, that simply having a large amount of money is not enough to solve all of one's problems. It sure can help in a pinch, but beyond the initial relief, a person has to learn to MANAGE all of that money. The ones who have built a sound foundation of money management prior to winning the lottery are the ones most likely to successfully manage their newfound wealth. The ones who did not develop those skills generally find themselves broke within a few years, and not understanding why.
In the past, third parties have gained major party status in some states. But rather than taking that new windfall and building upon it to gain traction, they tend to fizzle out back into minor party status. It's not because, ya know, The Establishment, Conspiracy, or The Illuminati. The explanation is much more prosaic: They were not prepared to manage major party status and leverage it to their advantage.
If you want to see a multi-party system in the United States at the highest level of national elections, YOU HAVE TO BEGIN BUILDING LOCALLY. There is no shortcut, no magic fix. Focus on building the foundation, gaining the experience, learning the mundane minutiae of running an organization that puts people into political office. Eventually, you will have a pool of candidates who become elected officials--not with the high profile of the presidency, but at the local and state levels, doing what they can to influence policy and serve their communities.
Then, and only then, will there be a REAL chance of third-party candidates getting elected into the House, the Senate, and the Presidency.
And one more thing: Keep in mind that as soon as Establishment-challenging candidates become elected, THEY THEMSELVES BECOME PART OF THE ESTABLISHMENT. That is not necessarily a bad thing, because the Establishment, after all, is shaped by the people who comprise it. No less an icon than Paul Wellstone learned this lesson in the course of his Senate career, and before he died tragically in a plane crash, there were plenty of folks on the Left muttering he had become a sell-out to The Establishment. In other words, he took his progressive ideals and learned to work with people on both sides of the aisle, and learned that sometimes compromise is necessary in working toward the bigger picture.
But if we cling to visions of maverick outsiders whose primary motivation is to Stick It To The Establishment, that is what alternative candidates will always remain: maverick outsiders.
The choice is ours. Choose wisely, and keep in mind the bigger picture.