Opinion: If a third-party candidate can’t take off in this election, it’s never going to happen

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 3.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 3.

(Scott Morgan / Associated Press)

Good Saturday to you all. This is Matthew Fleischer, digital editor of The Times’ Opinion section, filling in once again for Paul Thornton.

It was not a good week for those holding out hope of breaking America’s two-party grip on our democracy. Despite what are undoubtedly the least popular major-party candidates in our electoral history in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, America’s alternative party hopefuls found a way to effectively kill any lingering belief in their abilities to mount outside challenges.

Green Party nominee Jill Stein showed questionable judgment at best when video surfaced that appeared to show her spray-painting a construction vehicle at a protest of the contentious Dakota Access Pipeline. She was charged with criminal trespass and criminal mischief by local authorities.

Then there was Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, who, when asked about his plans to handle the Syrian refugee crisis, responded, “What is Aleppo?” Several dozen Internet memes later, Johnson’s once-promising hope for sharing a prime-time stage with Clinton and Trump now seem … distant might be putting it too politely.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are plenty of undecided voters in this election. And now they’re having an even harder time deciding which candidate they’re going to select in November.

Opinion columnist Doyle McManus was privy to a recent discussion with a 12-person focus group in the swing state of Wisconsin, conducted by pollster Peter D. Hart. The results were an illuminating study in misery.

Four of the 12 said they leaned toward Trump. Four said they leaned toward Clinton. Four said they were completely undecided. Almost all said they were still open to persuasion by both candidates.

All said they’d been disappointed by the campaign; they said they wanted to hear about issues, not “mudslinging.” Asked to describe the contest with a smell, their answers included “garbage,” “manure,” “skunk” — and “skunk fart.” But when asked what more they wanted to learn about each candidate, their questions were mostly about character: What are they like behind closed doors? Can we trust them with life-or-death decisions?

Asked to describe [Hillary Clinton] as a member of their family, the most frequent choice was “stepmother” — a loveless relationship.

When Hart asked how the voters would finally make up their minds, he was met with mostly blank looks. “It’s going to have to be the debates.” said one voter.

What can Trump do to win their votes? “Tone it down,” said another. Trump’s been getting that advice from his aides, but it’s not clear he’s taking it.

What can Clinton do? “Take down the mask and show she’s human,” another member of the focus group suggested.

It’s obviously not easy to rebuild trust amid the noise of a campaign, but these voters said they were willing to give the candidate another chance if she makes an effort to be “more transparent” (their words) and to connect with ordinary people.

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Before she got herself in legal hot water for her graffiti-laden pipeline protest, Stein was in Los Angeles for a detailed policy discussion with the L.A. Times’ editorial board. L.A. Times

Johnson’s Aleppo gaffe was embarrassing, but at least he owned up to it. When are we going to see the same from Trump over his Obama so-called birther accusations? Even a sheepish Rick Perry-esque “Oops” would be an improvement on his continued silence. L.A. Times

America’s two-party system likely will remain firmly in place for the foreseeable future, but one stranglehold on the American public is about to be loosened. The average consumer pays $231 a year to rent a set-top box from his or her cable provider — a service that currently allows for zero outside competition. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler outlines his long-awaited proposal to “unlock the box” and make sure consumers no longer pay a dime. L.A. Times

Essays, transcripts, interviews: Colleges make prospective students jump through hoops to learn about who they are. Don’t students deserve the same openness from colleges? In an op-ed, high school senior Simon Kuh slams the underwhelming college tour experience. L.A. Times

L.A. is thrilled for the return of the Rams, but that doesn’t mean we should foot the team’s security bill. L.A. Times

California’s drought continues to devastate the state’s wilderness areas. But not all the catastrophes in our wildlands are due to natural causes. On her podcast, Patt Morrison speaks with arson investigator Ed Nordskog about the case of Harry Burkhart, the German-born arsonist who was convicted of setting dozens of fires around Los Angeles over a single holiday weekend. L.A. Times

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