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History shows third party votes will fall and turnout will rise for election

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Even after one of the most tumultuous weeks, the polls seem to be stable. If the polls do not move, two factors that were critical for 2016 could still be relevant this year. They are whether the parties can raise their turnout and what the effects of third party votes will be. Both parties are fretting over whether they can convince their bases to vote in the pandemic and whether a third party can change the outcome in key states. Republicans care so much about it that they are fighting tooth and nail to add Kanye West and the Green Party to the ballot in swing states.

But history suggests that these subjects could be overrated. The last two close elections saw turnout rise for the next race, and third party support fell. It may be that after a close election and concern over jobs, voters will be more focused on the potential impact of the ballot choices, and more likely to come out for either of the major party candidates.

After the results in 2000, turnout jumped for George Bush in his contest against John Kerry in 2004. Similarly, after 2004 went down to the wire, turnout shot up in 2008, only to drop in 2012 for Barack Obama. Turnout waxes and wanes more likely due to political issues rather than charisma of the candidates. Both elections with Ronald Reagan saw lower turnout than the race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Theodore Roosevelt ran twice for president, and yet voter turnout for his elections was lower than in the sole victory run of William Howard Taft in 1908. Even when turnout increased for a charismatic candidate, turnout later fell in the second term elections of Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Interest in the race this year could rise simply due to voters reacting to the economic downturn and the coronavirus crisis.

Third parties mark another story. Democrats fear third parties for a reason. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader captured almost 3 percent of the vote across the country. More importantly, even a tiny portion of those 97,000 votes he won in Florida would have been enough to carry Al Gore to victory in a swing state that he lost by such a small margin. 

Indeed, a similar event occurred in 2016, with more than 5 percent of the vote for the  third party candidates. More importantly this time, the three Rust Belt states that Republicans won for the first time in over more than decades each had strong third party results, with 6 percent in Wisconsin, 5 percent in Michigan, and then 4 percent in Pennsylvania.

It is possible that in 2016, third party votes could have cost Republicans. The Libertarian Party, which never rose above 1 percent of the vote in an election for president, increased to over 3 percent of the vote. The Green Party vote was above 1 percent across the country. While the Green Party is seen as unlikely to vote for Republicans, it is possible that most of the LIbertarian Party would have otherwise swung to the right.

But will unsatisfied voters go to third parties? History again shows that it is unlikely. In the races following 1992 and 2000, third party candidates saw support crater. Ross Perot fell from 19 percent of the vote in 1992 down to 8 percent in 1996. Other elections with notable third party runs, including 1912, 1924, 1948, 1968, and 1980, all witnessed a collapse with third party votes in the next race, though the candidates were different.

Thanks to the results of 2016, we could hear more debate over whether the two parties can convince their bases to vote this year, and whether third parties will once more affect the race. Ultimately, the past reveals that neither of these issues will be that important this year.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow who is focused on politics and history with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform based at Wagner College.

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