US Election Team Blog

Libertarian or Green? What chances do third parties have in 2016?

Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich

The 2016 election is a contest between two of the most unpopular major party presidential candidates in America’s history.

On one hand, former US senator and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, wife of former president Bill Clinton, is regarded by many as being untrustworthy. Her opponent is a brash New York real estate billionaire who is thought to be one of the most unpalatable and divisive figures ever to be a major party presidential candidate.

With Donald Trump as his party’s standard-bearer, some Republicans could be forgiven for thinking of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 conservative campaign as the “good old days”.

Given the toxic popularity of the Democratic and Republican candidates, many voters appear to want an alternative. So what chance do minor parties have in 2016?

On paper, the Libertarian Party has a very strong ticket. Gary Johnson, a two-term former governor of New Mexico (1995-2003), is once again the party’s presidential nominee, having assumed that role in 2012. His vice-presidential running mate is another two-term former governor, William Weld of Massachusetts.

The other party that merits discussion is the Green Party, led by Jill Stein. She, like Johnson, was her party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

Current polling has Johnson/Weld averaging at 8.1% nationally, with their best recent result being 13% via Quinnipiac polling, and their worst being ABC News/Washington Post with 5%. Stein, meanwhile, is averaging at 2.7%.

Will these September polling results translate into votes on election day? And if they do, what will this mean for Clinton and Trump?

In 2012, Johnson became the most successful Libertarian presidential candidate in 32 years when he won 0.99% of the total national vote.

You read that right. The party’s most-successful candidate in a generation did not even win 1% of the vote.

In fact, in 2012 Johnson more than doubled the party’s 2008 vote of 0.4%. Across the ten presidential elections held since 1976, the Libertarian Party has averaged just 0.5%.

In 2012, Stein performed even better than Johnson, and tripled her party’s vote from the previous year, to win 0.36%. Across the five elections the Green Party has contested, its average vote is 0.5%, which includes 2000, when Ralph Nader won a record 2.74% to famously help deny Al Gore the White House. If Nader’s total is excluded, then the average drops to 0.3%.

Averages across elections are important because what this shows is that Stein’s 2012 result was on par with where the party sits nationally and historically, and that Johnson performed much better, with double his party’s average.

What this shows is that for all the media talk, third parties really hold no significant place in modern presidential politics.

In 2012, Johnson’s best result came via his home state of New Mexico, where he won 3.5% of the vote. Although he won more than 1% of the vote in 32 states, he only managed to break into the 2% barrier in four.

Stein, on the other hand, only passed the 1% mark in four states, with her best result also coming via New Mexico, with 1.2%. In fact, both Johnson and Stein’s four best states were the same: New Mexico, Montana, Alaska, and Wyoming.

We can though look to New Mexico as an arbiter of what might happen this year. Over the past two presidential elections, the Democrats have won New Mexico by an average of 12.7%.

Let’s be exceedingly generous for a moment, and assume Johnson and Stein will double their 2012 record results in New Mexico. This would give Johnson 7% and Stein 2.4% for a combined total of 9.4%. Even if 100% of their vote came from disenchanted Democratic voters, then based on historical voting results, Clinton would still win the state.

Of course that will not happen. Stein will certainly attract some disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters, but Johnson will almost certainly attract more Republican votes than he will Democratic ones, so the Republican Party is likely to suffer more than the Democrats.

But for fun, let’s apply this model of doubling Johnson and Stein’s 2012 results and then subtracting it entirely from the 2012 Democratic margin of victory across the nation’s five so-called “swing” states.

  • Colorado - Clinton would win by 2%
  • Florida – Trump would win by 0.31%
  • Nevada – Clinton would win by 4.5%
  • Ohio – Clinton would win by 0.54%
  • Virginia – Clinton would win by 2.85%

In fact, if we applied this same positivist model to the total 2012 national result, then Barack Obama would still have beaten Mitt Romney, albeit by 1.12%, rather than the 3.86% he actually did.

What does all this mean?

Despite the hopes of many, the Libertarian and Green parties will not play spoiler roles in 2016.

Even if both parties double their 2012 record results, they would have minimal impact on election day. The only state where they could be a factor is Florida, but this model assumes that the entire Johnson/Stein vote comes from Democratic voters, which is not the case. But Johnson is far more attractive to disenchanted Republican voters than Stein is to disenchanted Democratic voters.

Despite the hopes of many for a strong third-party showing, and despite the 2016 electoral atmosphere being a conducive one, it simply will not happen. And even if it did, it would not affect the result.

It is far more likely that disenchanted voters will simply stay home on election day.

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