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Government and Politics
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Third Parties See Opportunities In 2016 Presidential Election

Polls are showing that Oregon voters aren't rallying around either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. While Clinton is expected to win the state, her campaign is struggling to attract Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders in the May primary.

But Clinton and Trump aren't the only presidential candidates on the Oregon ballot this fall. And a pair of third-party candidates are hoping to make some inroads.

Amid carnival rides, livestock and souvenir vendors, Robert Rowe is pitching a political philosophy. Rowe is working the crowds at the Oregon State Fair at a tent set up by the campaign of Libertarian Gary Johnson. Johnson is a former Republican governor of New Mexico -- and for the second election in a row, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate.

Rowe thinks Gary Johnson's message will resonate with Oregon voters.

"All we have to do is tell people he's fiscally conservative and he's socially inclusive,” Rowe said. “And that pretty much gets most people's interest right there.”

The third-party pitch

But that's been the Libertarian party line for decades. Why would voters warm up to Johnson's message this time around?

"They're looking for another alternative because they really just are not thrilled with the other two candidates, for whatever their reasons might be,” Rowe said.

That description fits Jerry Axtell to a "T." Axtell is from Gaston, Oregon, and was visiting the fair with his family.

"They both suck,” Axtell said. “The main candidates."

Axtell stood and listened to the Libertarian pitch. He liked a lot of what he heard.

"I lean more and more towards their views,” he said. “And I agree with the fact that government shouldn't be involved in a lot of the things they choose to be involved in."

But Axtell is still not ready to commit.

"I usually don't fully make up my mind until the very end, the last week or two,” he said.

Risking a vote?

The Libertarians aren't the only third party to land a presidential candidate on the Oregon ballot. The Pacific Green Party of Oregon is hoping to attract votes for its standard-bearer, Jill Stein. Like Johnson, this is Stein's second run for president. Stein is a Massachusetts physician who's served in local government but has never held a major elected office.

The leader of the Pacific Green Party in Oregon, Blair Bobier, said Stein should appeal to supporters of another candidate who's no longer in the race.

"On a lot of the issues, Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders are very similar,” Bobier said.

Sanders won Oregon's Democratic primary handily before ultimately losing the party's nomination to Hillary Clinton. With Clinton now leading Donald Trump in the Oregon polls, Bobier hopes Sanders fans will cast their vote in favor of someone who shares many of their values.

"Understandably people in different states are concerned that they don't want to risk a vote for Dr. Stein, that they want to put their vote somewhere else to defeat Donald Trump,” she said. “That's not really a consideration in Oregon. So people can invest their vote in the Green Party and it will be effective in this election and into the future as well."

Bobier said Stein will likely make another campaign stop in Oregon before the election. The Johnson campaign has been running ads in the state.

Both Libertarians and Pacific Greens hope newfound interest in third parties will translate into future success in Oregon. So far that isn't showing up in the form of voter registrations. As of August, both the Libertarian Party and the Pacific Green Party had fewer registered voters than they did the previous August.