Jul 29, 2016
Since Hillary clinched the 2016 Democratic nomination, and particularly since the DNC e-mails were leaked by WikiLeaks, a significant number of “Bernie or Bust” types have been pledging support for voting third party—either for the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, or the Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein. Between the two, Gary has capitalized better. His advertisements on Facebook preach to the disaffected: “If everyone who claimed to want a third party voted for me, I’d win!”
To borrow from an insurance commercial, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works!” There’s two big problems with the bill of goods that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are trying to sell.
First, they both grossly overstate their potential. Political identity in the United States is complicated. According to the Pew Research Center, The pool of self-identified independent voters is larger than either Republicans and Democrats; but despite not being card-carrying members, they still tend to lean towards one party or another. With leanings factored in, 87% of Americans identify either directly or indirectly towards either the Republican or Democrat parties. That leaves 13% of the voting population to divvy up among third party, which ties into the second issue: party size and influence.
Second, the viability of a third party Presidential campaign is directly tied to the size and influence of the third party in question. A Presidential campaign timeline looks something like this (immensely simplified):
Step 1: Announce you are running.
Step 2: Win your party.
Step 3: Win enough Electoral College votes to win the national election.
If you are a Republican or Democrat, Step 3 is merely difficult—you have a pretty sizeable base, and you are pretty much guaranteed that some subset of that party base is going to vote for you no matter what, so winning means adding to that base in the right parts of the country to get enough votes. For any third party, they have no base to start from, which means their entire strategy revolves around Democrat and Republican attrition. In other words, they have to do twice as much work as your average Republican or Democratic candidate. In today’s political climate, a third party has zero chance of winning the election.
How does a third party truly have a chance? By growing the base large enough so that your built-in support base is comparable to the others. Large enough that you can win significant numbers of governor seats and Congress seats. And this is something that neither the Green Party nor the Libertarian party has done, or will have done between now and November. Instead, they treat the Presidential race as an advertising campaign for their party, hoping to draw in a few more disenfranchised Republican or Democrat voters.
Let’s put this in concrete terms for Gary Johnson, the only third party blipping on the national poll radar. The current projections at fivethirtyeight as of this writing give Gary Johnson 0.6 electoral votes—in other words, he’ll be lucky to get a single Electoral College vote anywhere in the country. But it also gives him 7.7% of the popular vote. Right now, those same projections have a 1.4% gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, which means that the 7.7% of the population tilting at windmills to get a single Electoral College vote for Gary Johnson could very easily put Donald Trump in the White House.
Even if we graciously entertain the scenario where Gary Johnson wins the election: what happens next? His party has no influence in Congress, making him even less effective in office as Bernie Sanders would be.
The Democratic Party right now is like the school of tuna caught in the fish net in “Finding Nemo.” The tuna begin to panic in fear, running in all directions at once, pushing and shoving and getting upset with each other—all while the motor on the fishing boat begins lifting the net. Individually, they get nowhere. Now, I’m going to channel Dory for a little bit.
#NeverTrump only works if everyone votes for the same candidate. If the alternate parties continue grass-roots efforts to build strength, then there will come an election cycle when voting third party will make political sense. But it is not this cycle. We are stronger together, with Hillary—just keep swimming.