The Electoral College system in United States Presidential Elections typically limits the viable field in Presidential Elections to just two viable candidates. In this case of course, that was Hillary Clinton and the ultimate victor, Donald J. Trump.
However, despite the fact that the system for the electing the President makes it near impossible for a third-party candidate to win, that doesn’t stop third-party or independent candidates running, and this election was no exception.
Of the myriad of other candidates who were on the ballots in some of the States, the most high-profile were the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and the Libertarian Party candidate, former Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson.
Given the national unpopularity of the two main candidates in this year’s presidential race, it was expected that this election could be a bumper one of third-party candidates, with forecasts during the campaign suggesting that many voters were considering backing third-party candidates out of distaste for those nominated by the Democrats and the Republicans. However, in the end, third-party candidates didn’t do anywhere near as well as expected. During the campaign, Gary Johnson was polling upwards of nine percent nationally, and had a justifiable claim for being included in the Presidential debates. However, when it came to the Presidential Election he only received around four percent of the popular vote, which amounted to more than four million votes. This meant that Johnson didn’t achieve his stated aim of gaining a five percent of the national popular vote.
However, although the national returns of these third parties candidates were less than satisfying, both Johnson and Stein did manage to gain quite sizeable number of votes in the battleground States — many of which were ultimately won by President-elect Donald Trump. It has been argued by many that the presence of the likes of Johnson and Stein in the race helped to hand the Presidency to Trump. Whilst this is hard to prove or support, it is indeed inarguable that these candidates made an impact in the battleground States.
This was particularly notable in Florida. It was of course Florida where then Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s candidacy in the 2000 Presidential Election was widely considered to have handed the State and the Presidency to Republican Candidate George W. Bush, despite Democrat Al Gore winning the national popular vote. This time around the situation was remarkably similar, with Hillary Clinton prevailing in the national popular vote, but ultimately being well beaten in the Electoral College. In 2000, Nader received 1.63 percent of the vote in Florida. The margin between Bush and Gore was just 0.05 in Bush’s favour. Although Nader has always disputed his impact, if he hadn’t been a candidate then it would have been hard to see his Green Party supporters plumping for Bush over noted environmentalist Gore.
This year, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida by 2.4 percent, so won by considerably more than Bush did in 2000. Gary Johnson won 3.1 percent in Florida, whilst Jill Stein won 0.7 percent of the vote there. It was a similar situation in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with the margin in all of these States being eclipsed by the number of votes cast for Stein and Johnson. This means that if you assume that the Stein and Johnson vote would go to Clinton, then Clinton would have won these States had they not been standing, and therefore she would have won the Presidency.
However, in my opinion, this is a pretty lazy assumption to be making.
Firstly, there is no way to prove that the Johnson and Stein vote would go directly to Clinton. Throughout the campaign, Johnson and his campaign team were clear that they thought that they were collecting votes from Democrats, Republicans, and independents, meaning that there is no guarantee that Johnson’s non-candidacy would have had any significant effect on the margins between Trump and Clinton.
Secondly, one of the main reasons that people were backing these third-party candidates was as a protest against the quality of the two candidates of the main parties. What’s to say that if Johnson and Stein hadn’t offered them another option, that they wouldn’t have just stayed at home on Election Day and not even voted. I’m sure some of them would have voted and particularly with Stein’s voters, you would have thought that most would fall on the Democratic side, however it seems unlikely that they would have been enough to overhaul Trump’s margin, particularly in Florida. In 2000, just one-third of Nader’s voters going for Gore, would have been enough to flip Florida into his column. However, in this election, more than two-thirds of Johnson and Stein’s combined support would have had to vote for Clinton in order to flip Florida. To me, this just doesn’t seem likely.
Overall, although the numbers mean that it is possible to argue that Johnson and Stein caused the Trump Presidency, to me it doesn’t really stack up. It looks to me more like an easy answer to the question of why Trump’s right-wing populism won the day. For the Democratic Party going forward, it is not at all helpful to any sort of re-building process to suggest that the election was in some way stolen because of the presence of third-party candidates. Of course, it is right to assess why many voters felt it necessary to cast a protest vote for one of the these candidates, but there should be no assumption that this was what lost the election, because the facts just don’t stack up that way.