In 1992, Ross Perot was leading in the presidential polls before he ever spent a dime on his own campaign. He achieved this feat by being showered with free media opportunities. He eventually wound up spending nearly $100 million, but his advertising blitz never came close to helping him as much as his early exposure. In 2000 Buchanan received over $12 million in federal funds, yet he barely beat out Browne.
Free media is not only less expensive, it is far more effective than paid media. With channel surfing, VCR zapping and even the traditional trips to the kitchen, it is possible to watch TV without ever watching a commercial (except momentarily), whereas people who watch talk or news shows do so specifically to obtain information.
Like candidates in the Republican and Democratic primaries, third party candidates live or die by free media exposure. No amount of advertising can come close to equalling the sort of coverage given to our competition. For that matter, the number of people who attend traditional political events is so small that about the only reason major candidates continue to bother with them is to provide a show for the media. More money was spent on their national conventions than in the rest of the campaign, even though they no longer have any real function (they did however get hours of network coverage).
The 2000 presidential election was described as a four man race between Bush, Gore, Nader and Buchanan, up to and including the reporting of election night returns. Yet Browne beat Buchanan in 17 states, and his vote totals often exceeded the margin of victory between Bush & Gore (the stated criterion for reporting vote totals of minor party candidates).
While Nader clearly led the minor party presidential pack, Libertarians cleaned up in down-the-ballot races. If you take the votes for the best LP candidate in each state and add them together, it came to more than 3.2 million votes, as compared with 2.7 million for Nader.
By most standards, we are the third largest party in America. We have more dues paying members, more elected officials and more candidates than all the other minor parties combined. We trail in three categories: money, presidential polls and free media.
Our money problems result both from our refusal to accept government money and not offering the rich what they want ... access to power. We have learned that well financed and well run campaigns do little better than token campaigns. The main use for raising vast sums of money seems to be impressing reporters (especially in the primary races). Most Americans say that politicians are already spending too much on campaigns, yet reporters won't take anyone seriously unless they do.
In 2000 only 2 major polls even included Browne, yet he ran neck-and-neck with Buchanan throughout the race. While Nader and Buchanan were featured prominately in the news, gaining over a 90% name recognition, Browne had less than 20%. By extrapolation, if Browne had received as much coverage as Nader and Buchanan, he would have probably beaten Nader as well. (See also polls.)
It is too easy to blame our lack of free media on the "liberal bias." After all, they gave coverage to Buchanan. Furthermore, we are more liberal on personal freedom issues than most liberals. I would hate to think that journalists will continue to ignore us simply because they can.
To a large extent, "news" consists of the activities of celebrities (i.e., gossip). If a rock star marries a fashion model, that will be reported. If an average citizen is murdered, odds are that it won't (unless it is exceptionally violent or gruesome). The only way to test this theory is to run a well known celebrity for president. Even Russel Means, Larry Elders or Roy Innis may not be a big enough names.
Ultimately, we may have to bypass the existing media by creating our own. This has certainly been the road to power before. Unfortunately, this is a far more difficult task in this age of media buyouts and consolidation. Our best hope is in using the internet to get our message out.