Election 2020: Why third parties won’t be a big deal this year

For third-party candidates running in this year’s presidential election, 2020 is decidedly nothing like 2016. Rather, it’s more like 2004, or 2012.

Technically, there are 11 people running for president this year, four of whom could, by appearing on enough state ballots, hypothetically receive the 270 votes required to win the Electoral College and thus the White House: Republican incumbent Donald Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Libertarian Party nominee Jo Jorgensen, and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins.

But in comparison to 2016, third-party candidates like Jorgensen and Hawkins — and even rapper Kanye West, who is on the ballot in 12 states — are generating far less interest, and consequently, drawing far fewer votes.

Polling conducted by Morning Consult indicates that in contrast to 2016, when 6 percent of voters indicated they’d be voting for someone other than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, just 2 percent of voters say that they are planning to vote for a candidate besides Trump or Joe Biden. Furthermore, a majority of those polled who voted third party in 2016 plan to vote for Biden in 2020.

So what happened? Why is third-party voting down this year? A number of factors, some with a long history, others tied directly to the candidacies of Joe Biden and, more crucially, Donald Trump.

As former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray, “This is not a good year for third parties, because Trump is such a monster.”

Donald Trump (unintentionally) stems the tide of third-party voters

Like 1992 and 2000, 2016 was a “change” election, with no incumbent running for the White House and a seemingly wide open slate, ripe for the picking by a third-party candidate. 1992 had Ross Perot, the most successful third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt ran in 1912. 2000 featured Nader, who won thousands of votes in Florida that might otherwise have gone to Democratic candidate Al Gore.

Elections with an incumbent president, on the other hand, tend to feature a limited role for third parties. Gallup polling in 2004 found that only 4 percent of voters said they would seriously consider voting for a third-party candidate, while an additional 3 percent were uncertain. The most successful third-party candidate in 2004, Ralph Nader, secured 0.38 percent of the vote. In 2012, Gallup polling found that roughly 5 percent of voters would consider a third-party vote. Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson ended up securing .99 percent of that year’s vote.

But 2016 also featured something else: seeming certainty. With Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee running against Donald Trump, whose eventual presidential win seemed unimaginable to millions, Clinton was viewed by many as so assured of victory that a third-party vote would serve more as cathartic self-expression than as genuine political calculus.

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In fact, as Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel wrote in September 2016, then-Green Party candidate Jill Stein campaigned on the notion that since Trump had already basically lost, it was safe to vote for her:

At Jill Stein’s presidential rallies, the 2016 election is over. Donald Trump has already lost, and his Republican Party is “falling apart.” A “Demo-Republican” party, led by Hillary Clinton, is rolling toward victory. It’s safe, in other words, to vote for the Green Party and to ignore those “corporate media” voices yammering about “spoilers” and “wasted votes” and — perish the thought — Ralph Nader.

“Most Donald Trump supporters, in fact, don’t support Donald Trump,” Stein said at a rally in Fort Collins on Saturday night, the second stop on a four-city weekend tour of Colorado. “They just really, really don’t like Hillary Clinton. So, let’s give them another place to put their vote.”

But that didn’t exactly go as planned. In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, third-party candidates earned more votes than the ultimate margin of victory by which Trump defeated Clinton in those states.

Now, 2020 features an incumbent president, and not just any incumbent president, but a deeply unpopular Republican president whom many people, including many traditional third-party voters, want to eject from office.

This year’s Green Party presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins, acknowledged the steeper climb for his party. “It is more difficult for Greens to run for president when the incumbent is a Republican like [George W.] Bush or Trump because many on the progressive side focus on defeating the Republican,” he told me.

Polling bears that out: in the 2020 Cooperative Election Study (CES), which features data from polling 71,789 Americans, Joe Biden leads 56 percent to 27 percent among those who either didn’t vote in 2016 or voted for a third-party candidate. NBC News polling showed similar results back in August, with Gary Johnson/Jill Stein voters leaning towards Biden by a 2-to-1 margin.

2016 featured a considerable number of undecided voters — 15 percent of the electorate, many of whom broke for Trump in the waning days of the campaign — there are far fewer undecided voters in 2020, and many of those are leaning towards Joe Biden rather than towards a third-party candidate.

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That’s bad news for third-party candidates who hoped to poach disillusioned Democrats or Republicans. But perhaps it’s good news for American voters who genuinely favor a third party over either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Third parties, free to be themselves

Back in 2016, I interviewed Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson twice, before he secured the nomination, and after. During our conversations, he stressed that his major appeal to voters was his seeming yin/yang balance between liberalism and conservatism, saying, “I believe I’m about as conservative as it gets when it comes to dollars and cents, but on the social side, well, it just — I get the Bernie appeal.”

To Republicans, Johnson says that he is “fiscally, the most conservative candidate you’ve ever come across. I’m all about smaller government and my history as governor demonstrates that in spades.” To Democrats, Johnson touts his high rating from the ACLU and says that based on what he did while in office in New Mexico to further civil liberties, “I’m the guy.”

But that’s not the case for the Libertarian Party candidate in 2020, Jo Jorgensen. (I reached out to her campaign for an interview but did not receive a response.) Rather than emphasize her similarities with either Joe Biden or Donald Trump, she has repeatedly reiterated her differences.

For example, during an October interview with Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch, she said that requiring children to be vaccinated in order to attend school was “immoral,” adding:

“Vaccinations, on the other hand—we’re talking about somebody forcibly putting a substance into your body. I am just shocked that that’s even a question in our country that is supposed to be free. And even though I have chosen vaccinations, and I’ve chosen vaccinations for my children, I would never use the excuse of herd immunity to force other people to put something into their bodies that they don’t want to.”

She told Fox News Rundown host Dave Anthony in September that the United States should pull out of NATO and the United Nations and become “one giant Switzerland,” adding, “Switzerland doesn’t get its nose in everybody else’s business and they try not to be … the world’s policeman.” (For the record, Switzerland joined the United Nations in 2002 and is a NATO partner, but not a member.)

Howie Hawkins told me that in 2020, the Green Party’s “messaging focuses on the need for eco-socialist system change, not just a change in which capitalist party has the presidency.” He said his goals in the race are twofold: “Advance eco-socialist solutions to life-or-death issues,” and build up the party on the local level through grassroots organizing.

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Those solutions include an eco-socialist Green New Deal, an economic bill of rights that would include a job guarantee, a guaranteed income above poverty, and peace initiatives that include a 75 percent cut in military spending.

When I asked him how the Green Party had changed since 2016, he said, “The Green Party is becoming more firmly committed to system change to a democratic and ecological socialism as opposed to discrete reforms of capitalism.” In other words, the Green Party is running entirely outside of — and against — both the Democratic and Republican parties, rather than attempting to appeal to either.

There are no expectations of big turnout for third parties this year, in a race many Americans feel is a binary choice. But the third-party candidates who could hypothetically reach 270 electoral votes are fighting for votes anyway.