Last night’s first round of Democratic presidential primary debates was what I expected—a contest between largely identical candidates competing to see who could promise each other more free goodies. Cory Booker came off as a bit light in the loafers, with a bulging lazy eye and a peeved reaction to Robert Francis O’Rourke’s cringe-inducing Spanish (per the rumors that Senator Booker is a closeted homosexual, I thought the look on his face was a mix of annoyance and arousal, but who can say). Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts just came across as an angry scold. When will Democrats learn that running a nagging woman is not going to win them elections?
Only Tulsi Gabbard, the mega-babe from Hawaii, seemed interesting, but she barely received any screen time. Then there were cookie-cutter dudes like Mayor Bill de Blasio and Washington Governor John Inslee who just looked the same, not to mention that guy from Ohio. In fact, the forgettable dude from Ohio got one of the biggest applauses with a quintessentially Trumpian promise to restore manufacturing (never mind that The Donald has already accomplished that).
Tonight we’ll get more of the same, though hopefully entrepreneur and math nerd Andrew Yang will spice things up with Asiatic wonkery. Otherwise, the only thing to see will be how many racial gaffes Vice President Joe Biden makes (I would love it if he made reference to Yang’s “Asiatic wonkery”).
So far, it all looks like good news for Trump. Of course, a weak, generic Democratic field might attract some doomed third-party hopefuls. That’s why for this week’s #TBT, I thought I’d look back to a lengthy piece from 2016 about the structural disadvantages of third party candidates, “Third Party Opportunity?“
The occasion for that piece was an e-mail from a former student (see below), in which he asked if there was any chance for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Johnson, a former New Mexico Governor, was probably about the best it was going to get for the Libertarians, who had an opportunity to pick up disaffected NeverTrump Republicans and rejected Sandernistas.
Unfortunately for Libertarians, their nominee was Gary Johnson (and they were up against Trump) who, despite his experience in office, just seemed like a shill for legalized weed and totally unprepared for the job (remember the “Aleppo” incident?). Rather than learning from their mistakes, they’re doubling down. Reason Magazine has a whole feature on John McAfee, creator of the popular antivirus software, who hasn’t paid income taxes in eight years and who is living in exile… in Cuba!
Libertarians are never going to have any success, even at the local level, if they keep attracting these kinds of kooks. Where they’ve been successful is in infiltrating the Republican Party—the same approach Trump took in 2015-2016.
Regardless, here is my response from 2016, in which I accurately predicted that Gary Johnson would win zero electoral votes:
This election cycle, both major American political parties nominated figures with low likeability and favorability in most polls. Many hard-left progressive Democrats despair that their party nominated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who they view as a political chameleon and corporatist. Similarly, some Republicans, both of the movement conservative (such as National Review) and establishment (think Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham) varieties, are dismayed that GOP voters elected Donald Trump as their party’s standard-bearer.
The question, inevitably, is “why not a third-party candidate?” Indeed, the Libertarian Party saw a doubling of registrations after Trump secured the Republican nomination in May. A number of dissatisfied progressives are turning to Jill Stein, perennial favorite of the Green Party (more interestingly, a significant minority of Bernie Sanders supporters are morphing into Trump fans). If both major political parties have such negative figures at the helm, why not reject both and vote for a third party?
I received an e-mail today from a student with exactly that question. Rather than discuss Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential picks–a topic I’ll save for Friday, and which I need to research further, anyway–I’d like to address this young man’s questions. Note, this student is the same precocious young man who e-mailed me about Brexit last month.
Here’s a screenshot of the e-mail, with a transcript:
Kids say the darnedest things.
With the somewhat radical left and right candidates in the major parties, how is Libertarian Gary Johnson not capitalizing on the 1/3 of independents and the rough 1/6 of soft Rs and Ds. He is somewhat centralist, having a neutral point of view and usually agreeing with the US population in policy issues. So far he hasn’t garnered enough points to be in a debate, however with his support in the west, he is the former Governor of New Mexico, he might be in one soon. If Gary is able to get on the floor and be seen as the middle ground between Hillary and Trump, do you believe he could actual contend for presidency or would he just get walked over. Also, if he does garner some electoral votes come November, what candidate would he hurt the most?
My L’il Politico brings up some interesting points, though I imagine there are many Democrats who would disagree with his assessment of Hillary Clinton, who strikes me as a chameleon who shifts policy positions with the wind; if she’s part of the “radical left,” it’s only because that seems to be what the Democratic base wants. Regardless, why hasn’t Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, garnered more attention, or done better at seizing the squishy middle of American politics?
“…Gary Johnson… won’t be winning the presidency this year, much less any electoral votes.”
There are a number of possible explanations. As I’ve already stated, there was a brief surge for the Libertarian Party after Trump’s nomination. Of course, Trump received his own bump in the polls, a typical occurrence once a candidate has won his party’s nomination nod (Clinton similarly benefited from the nomination bump in June). I imagine that, while there was an initial boomlet for the Libertarian Party, traditionally Republican or Republican-leaning voters have gotten used to or come to terms with Trump’s nomination, and are naturally returning to familiar (if somewhat altered) waters.
That, of course, would only partially explain why Gary Johnson–or any third-party candidate–won’t be winning the presidency this year, much less any electoral votes.
Third-party candidates suffer a number of disadvantages in the American presidential system, most of them structural. Unintentionally, our Constitution contributed greatly to the creation of the two-party system, a system which has endured, with only temporary interruptions, for most of the nation’s history. Despite George Washington’s warning against the formation of political parties in his Farewell Address, the two-party system was almost an inevitability.
For one, most States require a simple majority for a candidate to win elected office. Unlike Britain’s “first past the post” system, which allows the candidate with the most votes to win a seat in Parliament, most States require an actual majority (50% + 1), and will hold run-off elections accordingly. In effect, then, a third-party candidate of any significant ability or recognition only really succeeds in sucking votes away from the candidate he is most akin to politically.
In presidential elections, it is possible for third-party candidates to win electoral votes–just ask Theodore Roosevelt, who won twenty-two electoral votes in 1912, beating incumbent President William Howard Taft by sixteen votes, but losing hugely to Woodrow Wilson–but it is similarly difficult even to receive a plurality of votes (as I understand it, a “first past the post” plurality is all that is necessary in most States to win all of those States’ votes). Again, third-party candidates tend to wound candidates that are most similar to them on issues, or (in the case of TR in 1912) they completely supplant one of the major party candidates, only to go down with the ship.
“[T]he two-party system was almost an inevitability.”
Just look at the example of Ross Perot in 1992, a kind of spiritual predecessor to Trump in many ways. Perot was the most successful third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912, and while Perot won millions of votes nationally, he didn’t pocket a single electoral vote. He did, however, drain just enough votes away from incumbent President George H. W. Bush to ensure that then-Governor Bill Clinton could win the States necessary to secure the presidency.
One can look at multiple examples from US history: the Populist Party in 1892 (in 1896, they wised up, nominated the Democratic Party’s nominee, William Jennings Bryan, and still lost to the Republican candidate, William McKinley); the Socialist Party in 1920 (Eugene V. Debs won a million votes–from prison); the Progressive Party; and on and on. Third parties are victims of their own failure, too–voters vote for and donate to perceived winners far more than to perceived losers.
Historically, only one party has successfully moved from third-party status to two-party dominance–the Republican Party–and that was in the throes of the 1860 election on the eve of the Civil War, which saw the Democrats split into two (the Northern Democrats and the Southern Democrats) and the formation of the Constitutional Union Party. In such an environment, it was much more likely for an upstart Republican Party (only six years old at the time) to win the presidency, and the Republican Party benefited in part from the infrastructure left behind by the old Whig Party.
“Right now, we’re witnessing a major political realignment in both political parties.”
Also, an important point that’s easy to forget (the political establishment certainly did over the past year) is that political parties are broad coalitions, and they tend to reform internally or experience revolutions from within. They are not monolithic, Stalinistic organizations (most of the time), and they strive (often with difficulty) to appeal to and to appease multiple interest groups. These groups often coalesce around a shared set of values (for Republicans, it tends to be limited and/or efficient government; for Democrats, it tends to be an elaborate system of patron-clientele payouts to wildly disparate interest and identity groups), but there’s never perfect unity.
Right now, we’re witnessing a major political realignment in both political parties, although the Republican Party is certainly receiving more of the attention due to the nature of Trump’s over-the-top personality and bombastic antics. Notice, however, that Hillary Clinton (and the Democratic Party at large) has moved muchfurther to left, especially as the progressive, social justice warrior wing of the Party has become louder and more aggressive. In turn, that move to radical social justice has alienated many economic Democrats, who turned either to socialist Bernie Sanders, or to protectionist Donald Trump.
So, despite the low favorability ratings, Trump scratches an itch (as I heard one political pundit put it recently) that many Americans want scratched, even if many others are cautious of him. Similarly, many voters view Clinton as a crook, a liar, and crony, but they feel safer voting for the devil they know than the one they don’t.
But what of poor Gary Johnson, the lovable, doobie-smoking former Governor of New Mexico? Surely he can fill the vacuum of dissatisfied voters who don’t like either option, right?
Perhaps, but for the reasons listed above, it’s very unlikely. Johnson was an effective governor in New Mexico (he apparently vetoed more than even former SC Governor Mark Sanford), but since then his biggest claim to fame is that he talks openly about smoking pot (legalization, of course, is a big issue for the Libertarians, as it is for a growing segment of the Republican Party). Like many libertarian-minded candidates (Mark Sanford, again, comes to mind), Johnson comes across as a bit of a weirdo. There’s no doubt he’s an eccentric fellow. Should this disqualify him from the presidency? Probably not, but, again, voters respond to emotion and perception more than to policy or positions.
The face of a man who won’t be President.
The Libertarian Party itself is a party for the dissatisfied–that’s essentially why it formed in the early 1970s, when it had legitimate beefs with President Richard Nixon’s heavy-handed imperial presidency and tendency to expand the size and scope of government–and the dissatisfied voted for Trump this year. Trump has brilliantly co-opted the libertarian momentum that in years past went to Congressman Ron Paul or his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
This fact confirms for me a long-held suspicion: despite grand talk of ideological consistency and purity, the Libertarian Party consists, rather, of large numbers of disaffected weirdos–much like the two major political parties–that care more about presenting a certain Ayn Randian “I-am-really-the-smart-one-here” attitude than anything else. I’ve rarely met a serious, consistent libertarian. Most hard-core libertarians I’ve known are positively insufferable (I’ve experienced this phenomenon with self-described philosophical existentialists and nihilists, too), or they’re really just progressives: they want total freedom to engage in society-killing activities but become all-too willing to use the power of the state when it suits their purposes.
For better or for worse, many of these individuals have moved to support Trump or Sanders. But could squishy voters in the middle who aren’t traditionally Libertarian move to the party?
Again, I think not. Most of these voters will stick with what they know. A few will move from one to the other of the two major parties, and a very small few will vote third party as a protest or as a legitimate act of conscious. Those that want to give a middle finger to “The System”–a description that fits my perception of most self-described libertarians–are going to vote for Trump.
But what if Gary Johnson does well enough in the polls to get on-stage at the presidential debates? That’s a possibility, although I don’t think it’s likely at this point for the reasons stated above. If he does, it would certainly help his profile, and he would likely win over some voters–especially those that lean Republican, or believe the Republican Party has left them behind by nominating Trump–but not enough to win. It would certainly be healthy for the body politic to hear another set of ideas. Regardless, I would be surprised if Gary Johnson won any electoral votes in 2016.
However, in this scenario it’s very likely that he could suck enough votes away from Trump that a Clinton victory would be assured. Trump–or any Republican–has a very fine line to walk in the Electoral College, where the Democrats automatically enjoy a huge advantage thanks to California, New York, Illinois, and several other high-population, deep-blue States. Trump needs to win several Midwestern Rust Belt states and Florida to have a shot; that shot disappears with a mildly interesting, somewhat conservative third-party candidate.
All that being said, I respect those third-partiers who are deeply committed to their organization, or who believe they must vote for a third party as an act of conscious. Fortunately, our political system affords us this freedom. However, the most effective way to impact political change is within the traditional two-party system. Parties can be changed from within; after all, they are made up of normal people. With a little dedication and a lot of hard work, people can use the structural advantages of the established parties to push for their views and beliefs.
In other words, why reinvent the wheel, when the wagon’s already moving? Hop on board, and have a say in where it’s heading.