A third-party Green candidate is greatest threat to Democrats
Going green could turn Democrats’ blue to red. A third-party Green candidate may become a threat to Democrats in presidential elections.
Greens are steadily rising in other western democracies, and America has a well-established precedent of third-party candidates determining the outcome of presidential elections. The opportunity awaits the zealous environmentalist or the ambitious independent politician to seize.
Earlier this summer, the European Union’s governing centrist coalition was rocked by electoral gains on both ends of its political spectrum. Most notable among these were the Greens, who jumped from 52 seats in 2014’s European Parliament to 69. This was the Greens best showing — increasing by one-third to become the EU’s fourth-largest political group.
More recently and closer to home, a different outcome led to the same dynamic in Canada, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party lost its governing majority. To get things done, the Liberals will be dependent on the New Democratic Party, which resides to the Liberals’ left and places more emphasis on climate change. Although not the reason for Trudeau’s setback, the Green agenda will benefit.
There is a clear recent trend in western democracies of the Greens gaining greater leverage over the left’s politics. The question is when, not if, this confronts America’s Democrats in presidential contests.
America already has a long history of third-party presidential performance. From 1916 through 2016, third parties won a combined average of 4.5 percent of the popular vote. That share has been increasing. From 1968 through 2016, third parties averaged 5.5 percent, and from 1992 through 2016, 6.2 percent.
Third party success has been punctuated by notable successes: Robert La Follette in 1924, George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in the 1992 and 1996. In 2016, even without a significant candidate, third parties won 5.9 percent of the popular vote.
If a Green Party candidate gained traction in the U.S., it could scupper Democrats’ 2020 hopes.
Green voters make up a substantial segment of the Democratic base. Just a 5 percentage point reduction in Democrats’ 2016 totals would have lost them six additional states — Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia — and less than a 3-point decline would have cost them all but Virginia.
More subtly, Democrats could also lose the support of moderates if they had to tack too far left to retain Green voters from a third-party threat. Democrats are already challenged to compete in states where their anti-carbon stances alienate significant industries. If Democrats were pushed further left still, such erosion could move beyond just directly affected states.
This could have an even more devastating impact on the Democrats’ election chances. If disaffected moderates voted Republican instead, Democrats would experience a two-fold loss.
Either scenario is quite real for Democrats if confronted by a Green third-party insurgency. A single-issue candidate will always be able to outbid a multi-issue major party, which must balance its agenda with the exigencies of winning.
The fuel for such a Green third-party play is there. It has long been stored at home and is now being stoked abroad. Green demands are growing rapidly, as they become increasingly conscious of their latent political clout. Someone in America need only light it; there is great policy and personal incentive to do so.
A third-party run would greatly raise the Green agenda. No longer lost among a wider emphasis, it would receive its own spotlight. This would also create a synergy of enhanced media attention, money and followers — all of which would be attributed solely to its influence.
The same dynamic would apply to the politician who seizes the issue. Instead of being one among many within the Democratic field, an independent Green candidate takes whatever followers he or she has and merges them with voters disaffected with the two major parties — a group that, again, comprised 5.9 percent of 2016’s electorate. That is a tremendous personal political opportunity.
In many respects, America is behind the Green political curve. The question is when the curve will catch up to American politics. For an independent Green candidate, it is a no-lose situation; for the Democrat Party, it is a no-win one.
J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.