I could be wrong here, but third parties in the US seem to show up exclusively for the presidential election. They put up candidates, they complain a lot about how there is no space for alternative voices and then they disappear for 4 years. This seems to me to be no way to build an alternative. If they really need to build a party, there’s a lot of organizational work that would be needed. I would expect them to focus on winning lower level elections first and then work their way upwards. They are either not doing this, which means that they are not serious; or they are trying to do this and failing, which supports my point that there is really no need for them [Source: The Examined Life]

Ravikiran is definitely not wrong here. These third parties show up exclusively for the presidential election because a) they actually have no plans or intentions for winning the elections and b) they never can. As he notes, if these parties really wanted to win, the logical thing to do is to first focus on local elections. There even is precedent for a random independent person to be Governor (e.g. Jesse Ventura in Minnesota). But further down ballot as constituencies get more & more insular, third parties can win races. Even beyond school board and city council elections, the Congressional Races are ideal for getting your foot in the door.

Why doesn’t the Green Party or the Libertarian Party target certain House seats that are closest to their ideology? Is it because they’ll soon find out that the two major parties are in fact big tent parties that have members with a diverse range of beliefs and help nominate people with ideologies in line with their constituency? If the excuse is that incumbents have an unfair advantage in networking and social capital within their constituency, then how do they expect to overcome that at a national level? But if the real intention is not to win anything but simply raise a stink and effectively be a spoiler then yes, third parties do just that during Presidential elections, as they’ve the right to. But only if their supporters would admit this reality at least.

Even at the federal level, currently, there are two independent Senators (Bernie Sanders & Angus King) who even though caucus with Democrats have leverage to further their progressive agenda. In the age of narrow majorities, even a couple of third-party elected officials in the Congress can yield tremendous influence just like in the Indian parliament. Currently, the Senate is controlled by the Republicans by a 52-46-2 majority. Imagine the leverage a couple more progressive Senators would’ve enjoyed instead of betting it all on an improbable Presidential election. Bernie Sanders understood the realities of a Presidential election and hence ran in the Democratic Primary. He could’ve easily run as a third-party candidate like Jill Stein & Gary Johnson but he would’ve peeled off Hillary Clinton’s votes instead giving Trump a even larger victory margin.

Or as Ravikiran suggests as an alternate reality that the country in fact doesn’t need a third party. Russ Feingold who had no private email servers issues or never gave speeches to Goldman Sachs and by any measure is considered a solid progressive and was an ex-Senator still lost his election in Wisconsin. He was endorsed by Bernie Sanders who even campaigned for him. Still he lost to an unpopular incumbent Republican by more than 3 points; more than the margin of Clinton’s loss in the state.

At the Congressional level, another beloved progressive and a campaign finance reformer Zephyr Teachout lost to a first-time-running-for-House Republican in a country that Obama won by more than 7 points in 2008 & 2012. She was also endorsed by Bernie Sanders and endorsed by progressives-favorite groups like Sierra Club & Emily’s List. She was a volunteer at Occupy Wall Street. You couldn’t get any more progressive unless you got Ed Begley Jr to run. Yet she lost by 9 points in a battleground district in New York.

On the libertarian front, as soon as marijuana is legal in all 50 states, there will no libertarian movement left; at least among white people.