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Laid-back and modest: Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party candidate for President (©GAGE SKIDMORE)

In “Treehouse of Horror VII”, a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, the Republican and Democratic candidates for the presidency that year, are kidnapped by aliens. Two aliens return to earth impeccably disguised as Dole and Clinton. Only Homer — who has also been kidnapped — knows that the supposed candidates are in fact from outer space. He manages to return to earth and, in front of a crowd, reveals the candidate-impersonators’ true identities. The crowd gasps. “It’s true, we are aliens,” says one of them to the crowd.  “But what are you going to do about it? It’s a two-party system. You have to vote for one of us.” The crowd look at one another in dismay before someone says: “Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.” “Go ahead, throw your vote away,” says the other alien, laughing.

On Memorial Day weekend, at the end of May, with US television dominated by the news that Donald Trump had secured enough delegates to become the Republican nominee, and with Hillary Clinton on the brink of becoming the Democratic candidate, 997 Libertarian Party delegates meet in Orlando for their national convention, where they elect their presidential and vice-presidential candidates. 

For three days, a cavernous space at the back of the Rosen Hotel becomes a place where opening a speech with the line “Are there any Von Mises fans in the house?” prompts a raucous response from the audience. It is a place where a middle-aged woman in a fluorescent pink wig can delay the election of a presidential candidate to ask the chairman for a vote on making Dobby, the house elf from Harry Potter, the official mascot of the Libertarian Party. (“Dobby has no master. Dobby is a free elf.”)

The slogans on delegates’ T-shirts give a flavour of the ideological cocktail on offer: “Marijuana user”, “Enjoy Capitalism” (in the style of the Coca-Cola logo), “I’m already against the next war”, “Free to Marry and Free to Carry”. One features Ayn Rand’s face, torso-sized. Another conveys general exasperation: “Don’t Keep Calm!”

Supporters of this eccentric third party readily admit that the mainstream of American politics usually ignores their zany carnival of democracy, to which delegates arrive with no binding primaries telling them who they must vote for, and in which the vice-presidential candidate is elected, rather than appointed by the presidential candidate as in other parties.

But 2016 is different. While the two main-party candidates are not — as far as we know — alien impostors, many voters are frustrated by the choice between what one attendee described as “Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein”. Never before has America had to choose between two major-party candidates for the presidency who provoke so many “strongly unfavourable” responses in the polls. When it comes to revulsion, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are record- breakers. Dismayed and discombobulated by plans A and B, many voters are casting around for a plan C.

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