Election 2020: The Minor Parties Appear Set to Be Very, Very Minor Factors This Year

Voter Michael Grabowski fills out his ballot at a polling station during the primary election in Peru, Ill., March 17, 2020. (Daniel Acker/Reuters)

One major difference between the 2016 presidential-election cycle and this year is that so far the minor-party candidates appear to be non-factors. Whether or not you think “Gary Johnson and Jill Stein helped elect Donald Trump,” as a CNN headline put in 2016, in quite a few key states, the number of votes for the Libertarian candidate Johnson, the Green candidate Stein, or both combined was larger than Donald Trump’s margin over Hillary Clinton. Nationwide, Johnson won 4.4 million votes, or 3.28 percent, and Stein won 1.4 million votes, or 1.07 percent.

The notion that the third-party candidates “cost” Clinton the presidency is not quite accurate, as Trump still had more votes than Clinton in all of those decisive swing states, and no candidate is entitled to any citizen’s vote. All those voters who picked Johnson or Stein or another candidate had the option of voting for Clinton and chose not to vote for her. As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight observed, “both pre-election polls and the national exit poll suggests that a lot of [Jill Stein voters] wouldn’t have voted at all, if they’d been forced to pick between the two major candidates. The breakdown might have been something like 35 percent Clinton, 10 percent Trump and 55 percent wouldn’t vote. That doesn’t wind up netting very many votes for HRC.”

So far this year, there are few indications that the minor-party candidates will be factors anywhere near the level they were of 2016. One major indicator of this is whether you — in all likelihood, someone who follows politics much closer than the average voter — have even heard of the nominees for these parties.

Can you name the Libertarian presidential nominee?

It is Jo Jorgensen, a senior lecturer in psychology at Clemson University and Harry Browne’s running mate from the 1996 presidential election. She will be a listed candidate on the ballot on at least 45 states.

Can you name the Green Party presidential nominee?

It is Howie Hawkins, a retired Teamster and longtime Green Party nominee for offices in New York State. (This is Hawkins’ 25th campaign for public office. He has never won.) Hawkins will be on the ballot in more than half of the states.

These candidates were always going to be in the single digits and probably the low single digits, and their support is particularly hard to measure, as some pollsters don’t even mention the third-party candidates. The USC tracking poll asks respondents whether they will vote for Trump, Biden, or “someone else.” The CBS News survey didn’t mention other candidates; three percent of respondents said they were voting for someone else. The minor-party candidates can fairly ask how they can reach the 15 percent necessary to be invited to the presidential and vice-presidential debates when pollsters aren’t listing them as options.

The 2016 cycle was perhaps a perfect storm for third-party and independent candidates. In addition to Johnson and Stein, Evan McMullin won more than 730,000 votes nationwide, and finished with 21 percent in his home state Utah, and 6.7 percent of the vote in Idaho. In the state of Vermont, 18,218 voters wrote in Bernie Sanders’ name in the general election, which was 5.8 percent of the total vote. Even the Constitution Party had its best finish ever, with more than 203,000 votes nationwide, or .15 percent.

Four years ago, the media coverage of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein was hardly flattering — “What is Aleppo?,” the tongue interview, Stein campaigning inside the Democratic convention hall as a guest of Fox News — but at least the media acknowledged Johnson and Stein were running.

There’s still time for the minor-party candidates to make a splash this cycle, but the clock is ticking — early voting starts on September 18 in Minnesota, Wyoming and South Dakota, the next day in New Jersey and Virginia, and September 21 in Michigan and Vermont.

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