The role of third parties in the 2016 election

The inherent value of greater choice

If this tumultuous election season has shown anything, it is that voters want change; this fact has caused political upheavals in the two major parties. In the primaries, a field of 16 Republicans representing almost every faction of the party was swept aside by a bombastic real estate mogul who was a registered Democrat as recently as in 2008. The Democrats faced their own insurgency with a self-identified “Democratic Socialist” receiving 43 percent of the primary votes in a party that had recently prided itself on offering a centrist “Third Way.” But in the brawl of the subsequent general election campaign, a less apparent spectacle has been playing out on the margins – third party candidates have experienced a huge surge of support.

The wildly unpopular nominees of the two major parties have given third parties an opening in this election season. Donald Trump’s approval rating stands at an abysmal 35 percent and Hillary Clinton’s is not much higher at 43 percent. In September, a whopping 63 percent of electorate said they were “not at all satisfied” or “not too satisfied” with the major party candidates. As a result, the two major third parties, the Greens and the Libertarians, have managed to bring their support to near-record highs.    

The Green Party’s standard-bearer Jill Stein is currently polling at three percent, and the source of this support is fairly clear. Offering an impeccably progressive platform, she is an obvious answer to former supporters of democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders who are not willing to vote for Hillary Clinton. However, Stein suffers from the difficulty that her program of radical economic reform enjoys little widespread support. Furthermore, her most fervent supporters are young voters, a demographic not known for its reliability in going to the polls.   

The Libertarians under Gary Johnson, a former Republican Governor of New Mexico, have acquired a more motley group of supporters. With a unique platform that combines radical isolationism, cultural liberalism, and the near-unqualified support of laissez faire economic policies, the party has gained supporter spanning a range from disaffected millennials to Never Trump Republicans. With over 400,000 registered Libertarian voters and poll numbers at eight percent, the Libertarians make up the largest third party in the United States.

However, like the Greens, they are suffering from substantial difficulties. Despite vigorous campaigning, Johnson failed to meet the 15 percent cutoff set by the Commission on Presidential Debates to participate in the debates, depriving him of critical media coverage, and Mr. Johnson’s frequent gaffes, from his lack of knowledge of the plight of Aleppo, to his inability to name a single foreign leader he admires, has significantly impeded his support among many voters put off by the two major candidates.

Indeed, despite their increasing support, it is extremely unlikely that either third party candidate will get more than a handful of votes in the electoral college (if any), let alone win the presidency. American politics has almost always been dominated by two major parties, and this dynamic is built into the very structure of our elections. Our first-past-the-post system makes it very hard for third parties to gain any representation, even if these parties have substantial support. Moreover, it is extraordinarily difficult for a third party to actually replace one of the major parties due to the massive resources that the incumbents command.

This reality raises the question of what exactly the role of third parties is. The harshest interpretation is that they are “vote stealers,” hurting the outcome of the major party candidate whose positions are closest to theirs. This is the criticism leveled against Ralph Nader, whose bid for the presidency in 2000 is widely believed to have given Florida to Bush, costing Gore the election. It is still possible that one of the third parties could replicate Nader and tilt a swing state, but Clinton’s growing lead is making such a scenario increasingly unlikely.

However, even if third party bids have little chance of affecting who ends up in the White House, they do serve other roles. They can shine a spotlight on issues that are being neglected by the major parties, pulling them into the mainstream. As Ralph Nader, the most successful third party candidate in the 21st century said,

“[A vote for a third party is] not a wasted vote at all. They get things underway that the two parties are ignoring taking off the table. The Liberty Party in 1840 that went out against slavery. The Women’s Right to Vote Parties in the mid-nineteenth century, the Farmer’s Labor Party... they never won a national election but they push[ed] the envelope.”

Nader’s argument has recent precedents, as well. In the United Kingdom, many believe that the tiny third party UKIP, holding just one out of 650 seats in the House of Commons, was responsible for garnering support for the referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union that ultimately led to Brexit. However, the current emotion-dominated, policy-light election in the U.S. would not exactly be well described as issues-based, so although this role may be quite important, it is unlikely that third parties are effectively playing it now.

Yet third parties are serving an important fundamental purpose in this election. For millions of citizens who are unsatisfied with the current state of political affairs, third parties allow voters to continue to participate in the political process. Some voters see in the platforms of third parties a better expression of their own views. Two party systems naturally lead to awkward coalitions, and it is not hard to see, for example, how someone who supports the Democrats on social issues might not support that party’s belief in more stringent financial regulation. For some other voters, third parties may be an indirect means to express disapproval of the two major parties and to assert a demand for better options.

Regardless of voters’ particular motivations at the ballot box, third parties undeniably give them more choice. The existence of third parties therefore helps protect one our nation’s most valuable assets: an engaged citizenry. In this way, no matter how much these parties may stay on the margins of American democracy, they will remain central to its success.