SOMETIMES IT’S HARD NOT to feel spurned. The presidential contenders, so busy wooing Pennsylvanians and Michiganders, don’t pay any attention to Texans. The fix is in, we’re told. The state’s 34 electoral votes are guaranteed to go to the Republicans. We don’t even get to see the good attack ads.

But in July, as the Austin weather turned sultry and I began wondering whether to move to a nice, cool swing state like Wisconsin, I received a small consolation via e-mail. It was an invitation to an actual campaign event, featuring an actual presidential candidate: the fiftieth birthday party of Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik. “Free to the general public, and all political stripes are welcome,” said the invitation.

The party was at Momo’s, an Austin club whose mirrored bar and lava lamps are supposed to evoke a Las Vegas lounge. Momo’s feels a little frayed at the seams, as if it had once aspired to distribute martinis to the Bugsy Siegels of the high-tech boom but was compelled, after all of that ended, to introduce a $2 domestic longneck special. So it was a fitting venue. Badnarik had also had to make some adjustments after the tech bubble popped. He had moved to Austin from California in 1997, lured by the dual economic incentive of high tech and low taxes, but after losing his computer programming job in 2001, he couldn’t find a comparable one and eventually went to work as a telemarketer.

Now he is running for president of the United States. Badnarik has run twice for state representative; at a dinner party in Austin in 2002, friends persuaded him to try for the presidential nomination by asking him which was better: running for president or telemarketing? Though Badnarik faced two opponents with flashier credentials—one a radio host, one a Hollywood producer—he charmed the delegates at the Libertarians’ national convention in Atlanta last May, and they made him the party’s candidate. Subsequently, the wave of Badnarik enthusiasm surged across his native Indiana, where the state Libertarian party drafted his seventy-year-old mother, Elaine Badnarik, to run for lieutenant governor.

Badnarik isn’t the only minor-party presidential candidate from Texas this election. There is also the Green party’s nominee, David Cobb, a lifelong Texan. Both are running campaigns with budgets of a few hundred thousand dollars, as opposed to the few hundred million that George W. and John Kerry will spend. Both travel in compact cars rather than private planes and do more radio than television. And both have had to fight just to get on every state’s ballot. Badnarik estimates he will be on the ballot in all but one or two states, while Cobb hopes to appear on the ballot in 34. Neither stands a real chance of winning, and because of that, and in the wake of Al Gore’s Florida “loss” in 2000, which many Democrats attribute directly to the campaign of Ralph Nader, some might see it as perverse of Badnarik and Cobb to run at all, to spend months or years on an exhausting, impossible quest that could tip the balance in what is predicted to be another close election.

But the idealists and reformers who run for president under the banner of third parties do it in hopes of promoting their ideas rather than winning—or spoiling—in November. Though they differ on many issues, the Libertarians and the Greens each believe that the government has strayed too far from its principles, that it has been corrupted by special-interest money, in the Green view, or that it has swollen to a size far beyond what the framers of the Constitution intended, as the Libertarians believe. And both Cobb and Badnarik share an underlying belief that voters should have more viable options to choose from on the ballot, not just the Coke and Pepsi of major-party candidates. Nowhere in the Constitution, after all, does it say that the Democrats and the Republicans should rule the roost. But for those still not swayed, here’s a bare-minimum argument in favor of stronger third parties: Maybe if we had more than two big-time candidates, we could have a genuine presidential race in every state. Even Texas.

Badnarik himself looks and talks like you might expect a political candidate—a good one—to look and talk. He’s got the full head of hair, the confident speaking style, and enthusiasm in spades. At Momo’s he took the stage and addressed the crowd with a relaxed flair. With its rationalist arguments for restricting government and abiding by a narrow interpretation of the Constitution, the Libertarian party attracts a lot of middle-aged white guys with technical backgrounds, and Badnarik is one of them—only cooler. He’s an avid scuba diver and skydiver, he told the crowd. A macho nerd. After campaigning around the country, he said, “I’m very excited, because the momentum is building. The Libertarian party is stronger and more unified than it has ever been in its thirty-two years of existence . . . In West Virginia we lit the fires of liberty so hard we almost burned the building down!”

After a few minutes of listening to Badnarik, I may not have agreed with his ideas about, say, abolishing the Department of Education, but I believed that he absolutely believed in them. It’s one quality that can make third-party candidates appealing: They are not beholden to a large coalition of interests, and they’re not trying to fashion a majority by lobbing specially tailored messages at particular segments of the population. Michael Badnarik may still wheel out catchphrases and stock anecdotes, but relative to a lot of major-party candidates, what he says and what he thinks seem to orbit each other more closely.

Historically, third-party movements have been fueled by just this sort of passion for an idea or a set of ideas ignored by the mainstream, and they have often succeeded in pushing those ideas into the spotlight. The abolition of slavery, granting women the right to vote, and ending child labor were all advocated by third parties before they were mainstream no-brainers. In the same way, the Reform party in the early nineties made the case for term limits and deficit reduction, and major-party candidates paid attention, especially after the party’s candidate, Ross Perot, received 19 million votes in the 1992 presidential election.

For Cobb, a former Democrat, the sheer amount of money in major-party politics led him to leave the fold and join the Green party eight years ago. Cobb grew up in San Leon, a small shrimping town in Galveston County, and graduated from the University of Houston’s law school. He worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. Four years later he supported Jerry Brown’s candidacy, “which is when I ultimately decided,” he told me, speaking from his West Coast campaign headquarters, in Eureka, California, “that in order to do real progressive politics, one had to do it outside the Democratic party.” In 1996 he heard a radio broadcast of Nader accepting the Green party’s presidential nomination; the speech moved him to tears. Not long afterward he quit his job as a lawyer with Farmers Insurance to build a Green party organization in Texas. Ever since, he’s been trying to forward an agenda he summarizes as “peace, justice, democracy, and ecology,” whose current particulars include ending the war in Iraq, establishing universal health care, and repealing the Patriot Act.

In addition to the formidable hurdles facing any third party, the Greens have recent history weighing on them this year. The 2000 election gave them a black eye—or at least black eyes and other worse things were wished upon Nader and his supporters. Though Nader is running again, this time around the Greens nominated Cobb, in part because of his nuanced strategy. He acknowledges that people who agree with him on the issues might still want to vote for Kerry. “By every measurement, John Kerry is not a progressive,” he says. “But as bad as I think John Kerry is, George W. Bush is qualitatively worse. Bush and the cabal of neoconservatives that surround him are a dangerous threat to the planet.”

Might a third-party candidate tip the balance in this election? In a tight race, it’s certainly possible that of the two candidates Badnarik poses the greater threat. Take New Mexico. In 2000 Gore won the popular vote there by just 366 votes, while Nader received 21,251 votes and Libertarian candidate Harry Browne received 2,058. In an August survey, Badnarik received 4 percent of the vote there. A July poll in three Midwestern swing states showed Badnarik pulling 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the vote, enough to cost Bush a state in a very close race. Nader has been polling at around 2 percent.

Does that mean that the Badnariks and the Naders should stay out of this election rather than gumming up the works with what are little more than advertising campaigns? Third parties have less of a role to play in this election than last time around, according to Micah Sifry, the author of Spoiling for a Fight: ThirdParty Politics in America. In 2000, he says, “you had Bush and Gore both running so much from the middle that the arguments that there wasn’t enough difference between the two major parties made some sense. This time around I don’t think it makes much sense at all. . . . This election is a referendum election, about do you want four more years of the incumbent or not. It’s not about much more than that.”

Whether or not it makes sense for them to be on the ballot in the 2004 presidential election, in general we lose by not having stronger third parties. Even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat or Republican, you lose, since for all the hand-wringing and uttering of pieties against negative campaigning, the current two-party system is all but designed to produce it. In multiperson primaries, candidates are distinguished more by their accomplishments and ideas; in two-candidate races, campaigns tend to boil down to Not That Guy.

Both Badnarik and Cobb will tell you they’re not just tilting at windmills. The Greens have elected more than two hundred candidates to local office around the country, the Libertarians more than six hundred. A few hundred people on water boards and county commissions may not sound like the groundswell needed to lead us into the great new multiparty future, but for these guys it’s a start. What both of them would really like to see is a change in election law that would allow instant runoff voting: a system in which voters can indicate more than one choice of candidate. (The “instant runoff” eliminates losing candidates and then conducts a second-round vote.) This would allow third parties to avoid the spoiler charge, and it would let people vote for third-party candidates without feeling that they had wasted their vote on someone who won’t win.

Republicans in Utah (now there’s a vanguard for you) have already implemented such a system for their primary elections, though it may take the rest of the country awhile to catch up. In the meantime, at least I got to go to Michael Badnarik’s birthday party.