If you’re like a lot of Americans, you aren’t thrilled with the prospect of voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Nearly half of respondents in a poll this spring said they were willing to consider voting for a third party candidate.
But what effect will a vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein (in states where she’s on the ballot) or independent candidate Evan McMullin (ditto) have on the election?
Today we dive into the riptide that devours people whenever they mention voting for a third-party candidate. Why? Because we apparently want even MOAR hate mail.
Before you send that note, though, please remember that we’re not telling you to vote for a third party, nor are we telling you NOT to vote for a third party. We’re simply trying to answer common questions about voting for someone other than the Big Two.CAN A THIRD PARTY CANDIDATE WIN?
Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks with the USA TODAY editorial board on Sept. 21, 2016, in McLean, Va. (Photo: Andrew P. Scott, USA TODAY)
The whole thing? It’s unlikely.* As we told you last week, the Electoral College chooses the president, and to win, a candidate has to get 270 electoral votes. No third party candidate is polling high enough to secure anywhere close to that number. In fact, it’s questionable whether any third-party candidate will garner a single electoral vote.*
Johnson is polling highest nationally with 5 to 10 percent of the vote (depending on which poll you like), but he’s been losing ground since mid-August. Stein is polling around 2 percent. McMullin isn’t being included in many national polls, but he’s doing rather splendid in his home state of Utah, leading Trump and Clinton in the latest poll.
* See our caveat about Utah belowSO, AM I WASTING MY VOTE?
Depends on how you define “wasted.” If you’re voting your conscience, no vote is ever wasted. But there is a lot of talk about “spoiler” votes – as in, third parties could determine the election outcome depending on how they siphon votes from the Big Two (think Ralph Nader in Florida in 2000).
Arguably, those siphoned votes may matter more in states where the outcome is expected to be close, like Florida and Ohio, than in states where a Trump or Clinton victory is a foregone conclusion, like Wyoming and California. But the election map is a weird place this year, with states like Arizona and Utah considered tossups and Missouri and Colorado considered potential third-party spoilers. That’s probably why media outlets are calculating 1,024 ways for the election to shape up -- you know, just to be safe.WHAT’S THE SPOILER EFFECT?
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein speaks during a news conference at South Austin neighborhood Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Chicago. (Photo: AP Photo, Tae-Gyun Kim)
Most pundits believe a vote for Stein or Johnson is actually a vote for Trump because it siphons support that would otherwise go to Clinton. (Though there are dissenters who say a Johnson vote could be slightly good for Clinton.) Why? Because Millennials.
Young voters support Clinton far more than Trump in a two-way race. But make it a four-way race with Johnson and Stein, and Clinton’s support plummets among Millennials. As a Los Angeles Times op-ed puts it: “Because Clinton appears to lose more votes to Johnson than Trump does, those who opt for the pox-on-both-your-houses candidate could well put the Republican in the White House.”* TELL ME MORE ABOUT UTAH
McMullin is surging in Utah, in what appears to be a backlash against Trump. McMullin is Mormon and has taken on more traditional GOP stances than the party’s standard-bearer, which the state’s conservative voters obviously find appealing. If McMullin wins Utah (not all polls agree that he will) and Trump does better than expected in other swing states, a scenario could present itself where no candidate earns the required 270 Electoral College votes to win.
That means the U.S. House would decide the election (thanks, weird constitutional quirk!). McMullin hopes enough GOP lawmakers that dislike Trump will jump ship and vote for him. (A similar scenario has been touted if Johnson were to win his home state of New Mexico.) Never mind that the whole reason we'd get to this scenario is that Trump did better than expected, and there would be immense pressure on representatives to vote how their constituents did.
So, yeah, the odds of McMullin (or Johnson) winning are slim. But if “Dumb and Dumber” taught us anything, it's that one in a million is still a chance.MORE FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAILSheryl Crow on her change.org petition to make campaigns shorter: ‘No one benefits from two years of this.’ (USA TODAY)Las Vegas Journal-Review’s Trump endorsement: Yeah, he’s alienated a lot of people, but he’d annoy a lot of powerful people (USA TODAY)Life-size Clinton and Trump voodoo dolls are back and ready for your pinpricks (Louisville Courier-Journal)Where are all the poll watchers in Florida? Trump’s call to watch for election rigging heeds few takers (Naples Daily News)Elizabeth Warren is having way too much fun with this Nasty Women Shouldn’t Vote for Trump thing (USA TODAY)And because this was only a matter of time: Weird Al takes on the election with “Bad Hombres, Nasty Women” (YouTube)FULL DISCLOSURE ON THAT FACEBOOK POST
A recent John Oliver segment on third parties made the rounds on Facebook. Most posts praised the part where Oliver told people to consider Johnson and Stein not as spoilers but as real candidates with ideas worth considering. They conveniently ignored the rest of the video where Oliver picked apart their ideas. Either way, it’s worth a watch (especially when Oliver plays third-party candidate Joe Exotic’s epic campaign video – you can find it at the 1:45 mark, and yes, you’re welcome).