Polarized campaign leaves little room for third-party hopefuls
Third-party presidential candidates are significantly less of a factor this year than they were in 2016, with experts saying the 2020 vote comes down to a stark choice between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Four years ago, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein received approximately 6 million votes combined — double the eventual gap between Trump and Hillary Clinton. But with the country more polarized than ever — and in the throes of an escalating pandemic — Tuesday’s election is seen as a referendum on the president, with third-party candidates unlikely to be accused of playing spoiler, regardless of the outcome.
“Our extreme partisan polarization means that there’s not much room to run on the outside of either party,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego.
“I think when you have two candidates that are clear, give voters a really clear choice between two different directions for the country, that makes it harder for third parties to make a traditional pitch that there’s no real difference between these two major parties,” Kousser said.
However, Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, said there is some indication that as many people will vote for third parties this year as in 2016, noting that a few close to him have voted for Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgenson.
“Just because the big media isn’t paying attention to the Libertarians, it doesn’t follow logically that [Jorgenson]’s gonna get a substantially smaller vote than Gary Johnson,” Winger said. “People have other ways of finding out about her than just the big media. We really don’t know how many votes she’s gonna get.”
In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Jorgenson with the support of 1.6 percent of likely voters nationwide and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins comes in at .4 percent.
Also on the ballot in many states this year is rapper Kanye West, who previously supported Trump and has not denied the suggestion that his campaign could theoretically damage Biden’s chances. West, however, is not on the ballot in enough states to secure an Electoral College victory, and he’s not expected to be a contender even where he is.
“I don’t think he’ll get even a half a percent in any state,” Winger said. “Just because somebody is famous doesn’t mean they get a lot of votes.”
According to a Morning Consult poll published Tuesday, only 3 percent of likely voters remain undecided, much lower than at the same point in 2016. For Hawkins, the reason is obvious.
“Donald Trump, people now know who he is, and they either like them or they don’t, but they made up their mind,” he said. “So like I said, this election is all about Trump. It’s a referendum on Trump. And most people have made up their mind.”
And a survey released Friday by Northeastern, Harvard and Rutgers indicated that 2016 third-party voters are breaking three-to-one in favor of Biden this year.
“The hatred of Trump overrides everything,” said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “And so they’re willing to put those things aside and really eschew even thinking about voting for a Green Party candidate or another third-party candidate in the way they did in 2016, because it is such a strong goal to get rid of Trump.”
Barker said that earlier this year, he might have anticipated third-party candidates playing spoiler in the election, but the coronavirus pandemic and multiple high-profile police-involved shootings of Black Americans have given voters a sense of responsibility to vote against a second Trump term, even if they don’t love Biden.
“We’ve never had a figure this polarizing in the history of modern American politics,” Barker said. “For anybody who was undecided as of March or April or May or June, this pandemic has really moved the share of those people into the camp of well, ‘Geez, things are going worse and we know who to blame.”
“And if anybody didn’t make up their mind because of that, there were all the racial justice protests around police brutality that have been happening all through the summer,” he added. “So, once you take all that into account, there’s going to be a very small handful of people who haven’t made their mind up.”
Jorgensen’s campaign manager, Steve Dasbach, rejects the “spoiler” mentality, saying he wants voters to know that there are options beyond the two main parties.
“I haven’t quite figured out yet how when I mark Jo Jorgensen on the ballot, it magically turns into a vote for Trump or Biden,” Dasbach said. “I haven’t seen that happen yet. But apparently, according to what the partisans for Biden and Trump say, this is an immediate occurrence that your vote for a third party candidate is actually a vote for someone else.”
“I think it just shows an arrogance that, you know, that somehow they own our votes, that they are entitled to our vote and the only thing we’re allowed to do is to choose whether we want the red version or the blue version,” added Dasbach, who also previously served as the national director of the Libertarian Party and chair of the Libertarian National Committee.
Dasbach blamed national news outlets for their lack of coverage on Jorgensen and other alternative candidates, saying the media chose to “frame the race as Trump versus anti-Trump, because they felt that the best way to get Trump defeated is to unite everybody who doesn’t like Trump.”
Hawkins also pushed back on the notion that his campaign is spoiling the effort to get Trump out, saying deeper reforms are needed for a more representative democracy.
“Get rid of the Electoral College and have a national popular vote using rank choice voting,” he said. “I mean, the problem for the Democrats is the Electoral College installed losers like Donald Trump and George Bush in the presidency in the 21st century after they lost the popular vote. And the only reason it was close enough for the Electoral College to do that was massive voter suppression.”
Trump’s Electoral College victory including winning the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan by fewer than 80,000 votes combined, a razor-thin margin that Kousser said further decreases the chance of voters going third party this time out.
“After the last election where it was so close in some states … people feel like no state is out of reach,” he said. “And so, they want to make sure that their vote is not wasted on a candidate who isn’t, you know, one of the two front-runners.”
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