CHEYENNE – Donald Trump and Joe Biden were no-shows, but the last presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle happened Saturday night among little-known independent candidates at the Little America Hotel and Resort in Cheyenne.
While each candidate is running on a different platform, all of them share the same belief that the country’s two-party election system is flawed and ripe for revision.
Distant from both Washington and the disruptive tone set during Biden and Trump’s face-off a few weeks ago, the candidates who debated here stuck to their time limits for answering questions and didn’t interrupt each other.
A total of 10 candidates – including Trump, Biden and music mogul Kanye West, who is running as an independent – were invited to the third open presidential debate of 2020, which the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and Independent National Union co-hosted.
However, only four of those 10 candidates participated in the debate: Independent candidate Brock Pierce; Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins; Party for Socialism and Liberation candidate Gloria LaRiva; and American Solidarity Party candidate Brian Carroll.
“We have two political parties, and each one is telling us that (if they don’t win) it’s all over,” Carroll, a former history teacher, remarked in front of an audience of about 100 people – very few of whom were wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“If any of us thought that for a minute, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Carroll said.
He describes his party as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, with a comprehensive “pro-life” bent that focuses on ending abortion and the death penalty, as well as expanding access to heath care. Carroll acknowledged that he’s “probably not going to win election this year,” but is instead focused on the future.
The same goes for Pierce, a wealthy tech entrepreneur who was one of the driving forces behind organizing Saturday’s debate.
“This isn’t about what happens this year. It’s about what happens in the future,” said Pierce, who is already planning on running in 2024.
“This is really about the American people winning. It’s really about our country winning. Any time that we can hear more ideas from thoughtful, engaged citizens, we should be listening,” he said about why he decided to move forward with hosting the debate so close to the Nov. 3 election.
He said he chose Cheyenne as the location for a number of reasons, including the dashed hope that West, who owns a ranch near Cody, would show, and because of the state’s reputation as a supporter of cryptocurrency.
Clad in a tailored gray suit, Pierce’s ensemble included red, white and blue sneakers adorned with gold bee-shaped appliqués, which he says symbolize the “the pollination of ideas.”
Pierce, who attended the debate in between campaign stops in Alaska, Iowa and several other so-called flyover states, said he’s always been an independent voter and thinker, and wants to leverage that power to drive deeper conversation on the use and advancement of technologies like cryptocurrency, among other things.
“Independents are the majority. We’re bigger than the Democrats and Republicans,” he said. Indeed, 42% of registered voters in 2020 are independent, according to independent political analysis group Gallup.
“I think we’re doomed if we don’t do something different.”
Max Novendstern, a 30-year-old tech industry worker from the San Francisco Bay Area, heard about Pierce from a colleague and decided to make the trek to Cheyenne for the weekend.
He said he’s still an undecided voter partly because “People my age aren’t resonating with anything Trump or Biden are saying. We grew up on computers, so we think about the world in a very different way.”
Although Novendstern is resigned to the fact that his home state of California will most likely go for Biden, he’s open to voting third party as a “protest vote,” because he’s “just really scared to vote for Biden or Trump.”
Expanding the pool of viable presidential candidates is something Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, has wanted since he was a young voter in the 1960s.
“I’ve been looking for an alternative my whole life,” said Hawkins, who characterized the Commission on Presidential Debates’ requirement that candidates meet a popularity threshold to participate as a “scam.”
Hawkins, whose platform includes implementing the proposed Green New Deal, addressing systemic inequities and cutting military spending, said that even though he expects “Biden to win by a landslide,” he’s still committed to building his party and pushing harder for the policy issues he’s prioritized.
“We don’t have to win the White House to have victories for the Green Party,” Hawkins said. “There’s a historic role of third parties in this country. They put issues on the table that have been excluded.”
LaRiva, the socialist candidate who called capitalism “unsustainable,” echoed Hawkins’ and the two other candidates’ core message of the evening: “People’s voices need to be heard, whether you can win or not.”