Long Shots

"Broke, sleep deprived, ignored by the press, and in the end snubbed by the voting public...underdog campaigns were typically about as fun as smallpox," is how author Robert Draper described the electoral long shot.

Yet, with every election, individuals with little or no chance of success willingly take on the significant financial burden and unyielding workload that comes with running a local, state or national campaign. Some compete for the same office on a minority party ticket year after year, despite never gaining more than a small percentage of the vote. Other candidates align themselves with a major party in an area dominated by the opposition, or run on platforms either too radical or too conservative for their district. Why do they do it?

Passion, idealism, ambition, frustration, anger, even desperation, are motivators. But across the board, underdog candidates want to give people "a voice." They strive to represent those who have been "left out of the political process," people who "don't count," who've been "muffled," "tabled," and "shelved." Winning isn't the only goal.

In recent months, the Occupy movement on the left and the Tea Party on the right have basked in the limelight while the underdog candidates who might progress alternative agendas have been left out in the cold. Protesters justifiably have been credited for revitalizing and reorienting political dialogue, but collectives and committees aren't elected to political office. We vote for individuals.

1881 is the last year in which a Democratic candidate represented Tennessee's First Congressional District. Currently, Alan Woodruff, a fiscally conservative Democrat, is challenging Tea Party incumbent Phil Roe, who won the 2010 race with over 80% of the vote. Sound crazy? What's crazy to Woodruff is America's "totally dysfunctional Congress," which has become even less effective through the machinations of Tea Party caucuses. As an expert in tax and constitutional law, Woodruff feels he has a deep understanding of how government works and the right credentials to represent sidelined moderates in his community.

Despite the challenges he faces, Woodruff thinks he can win. According to Woodruff, Democratic national and state organizations don't finance underdogs, so he can't afford a campaign manager or professional advisor. To avoid financing pitfalls, he runs his campaign like a business, which also gives him a competitive edge.

In 2008, Democratic candidate Rob Russell ran for the same office, facing the same odds, to stand up for "working people" against "the party of the rich." Despite name recognition as a local musician, he soon learned that money and partisanship matter more than sheer determination. While the Republican Party saturated his district with advertisements, Russell claims the Democratic Party siphoned funds he raised at the county level to more competitive state and national contenders. The "bandwagon effect" also played a role -- in Eastern Tennessee, electing Republicans is a tradition dating back to the Civil War, when unionist voters formed a bulwark against the confederacy's Southern Democrats. Running for Congress is the "stupidest thing" he's ever done, and Russell's bid took a toll on his family and personal finances. Yet, he has no regrets. He "put his money where his mouth is," and is "proud" to say he represented people in his district.

Were Russell to run again, he would do so as an independent, not only because of his district's bias against Democrats but also because his views have shifted to the left of the Party. Woodruff, on the other hand, believes that "minor party candidates don't expect to win -- they're just out there to make noise." But mounting dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and the success of independent-minded candidates like Ron Paul make the idea of voting for a third party less far-fetched.

Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein believes that "third parties are not the sideshow, they are the real show." Her four-point "Green New Deal" for the 99% appeals to marginalized voters of every political persuasion: the right to a job at a living wage, the transition to a sustainable, green economy, a financial sector serving Americans, and citizen empowerment. In Stein's words: "We don't need to run America like a business or like the military. We need to run America like a democracy."

Unlike Republican or Democratic presidential candidates, Stein doesn't benefit from a war chest, super-PAC, or billionaire friends. She relies on ordinary people, who contact her online to donate small sums or volunteer. Her grassroots campaign focuses on getting a ballot line in all fifty states and fundraising to meet public financing requirements. Not millions, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, but, rather, a threshold of $5,000 per state. This candidate isn't beholden to special interests.

Stein entered into the political arena as a "desperate doctor," who understood the science behind America's obesity, asthma and cancer epidemics. She worked with advocacy groups and at the state and local level challenging environmental policies; as a presidential candidate, she is also concerned with the nation's high levels of poverty, foreclosure, unemployment, incarceration, and the uninsured as well as our low corporate tax rates and corporate tax loopholes.

Stein speaks at Occupy events, community colleges, and small-scale gatherings, where her message is received as though she were "handing out candy." Last year, she gave a six-minute presentation at Western Illinois University's mock election, often cited as an early predictor of the general election. The Green Party expected to poll 3%. Instead, Stein finished in third place with a surprising 27% of the total vote behind President Obama at 39% and Mitt Romney's 33%. Buoyed by these results, she decided to run to win. While America's general election results remain to be seen, WIU's exercise nonetheless demonstrated that when the voices of alternative political representatives are amplified, people listen.