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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Political Notebook 3: The lesser of four evils

The US presidential campaign this year has been filled the bizarre, the unusual, and even the downright shocking. There hasn’t been a campaign like this in living memory—and there’s still about two and half months to go. But with the two main party candidates both carrying such high negatives, will it come down to a choice among the lesser of four evils?

I’ve always thought that the “voting for the lesser evil” phrase is one of the silliest political expressions. It’s VERY rare that the two candidates are truly equally bad, and no major party candidate has been literally evil. Hillary Clinton is nowhere even remotely as bad as Donald on any issue, despite all the propaganda to the contrary from some on the leftward side of Left. She’s also not “evil” (Donald probably isn’t evil either, though the jury may still out on that one…).

However, with both candidates deeply unpopular, that encourages the “lesser evils” hyperbole and exaggeration more than in most presidential campaigns. The reality is that both the minor party “alternative” candidates have views that will repel some voters.

According to the current (as of today) Real Clear Politics polling average, in a four-way contest Hillary Clinton is at 42% to Donald’s 38%—a four point lead. Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is in an extremely distant third place at 8.1%, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein is at an irrelevant 3.3%. Remove Stein from the race, and things are better for ALL the candidates: Hillary Clinton is at 42.6% to Donald’s 38.1% and Johnson brings up the rear at a better, but still distant, 8.7%. In this scenario, Hillary’s lead actually rises to 4.5%.

There are a lot of reasons for the terrible performance of Johnson and Stein, especially the fact that that Donald scares the hell out of rational voters and they know that Hillary Clinton is the only one who can stop him. But the supposed “alternative” candidates have their own baggage repelling voters.

Jill Stein has framed her campaign primarily as an ultra-leftist crusade against Hillary Clinton, often repeating the canard that there’s no difference between the two main party candidates. But, then, like Ralph Nader before her, she needs to stick to that line. It’s her other positions that are a concern.

The leftward side of Left can be every bit as irrational and anti-science as the far right is, just on different issues. For example, “Jill Stein Continues Pandering to Anti-Vaxxers”, something one would think a competent medical doctor wouldn’t do—unless politics demands abandoning reason, apparently. She’s been called “The liberal pseudo scientific demagogue”, though she might bristle most at being called a mere Liberal. Stein hailing Julian Assange as “a hero” after it was revealed he’d outed gay men and named male rape victims in brutally repressive Saudi Arabia, endangering their lives, also calls her judgment into question.

Johnson, meanwhile, has his own problems. He’s been both lauded and vilified by self-proclaimed libertarians, which isn’t surprising: As Rolling Stone noted recently, “voters of all political persuasions will find something objectionable” in Johnson’s positions, which are all over the map, ideologically speaking.

However, Johnson’s sampler-plate ideology is probably the best explanation for his staying power: Disaffected Republicans and even some Democrats can focus on only the things they like or don’t care about, ignoring the things they don’t like. And, he’s not as scary as Donald, of course.

My punditry

Given the negatives of all four candidates, Stein is and will remain a fringe candidate only for the most leftward side of Left. She doesn’t appeal to mainstream Democrats, and never has. At best, she might capture votes from the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, assuming they can be bothered to vote, but they’re a small number nationwide, and insignificant at the state level. Still, she might be extremely lucky and end the election with 1% or so of the popular vote.

Johnson, on the other hand, is still polling around 9%, and historically, support for third-party candidates doesn’t usually fall off dramatically from this point in the election campaign, as Five Thirty Eight pointed out. That means that, based on current polling, Johnson could end up with around 7% of the nationwide vote, which would be considered successful if most of it wasn’t just “anti” one candidate or the other.

The bottom line

Nothing has changed: The next US President will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald—neither Johnson nor Stein can win. At this point, it seems certain that Stein will again be irrelevant, and it’s unlikely that Johnson will “spoil” the outcome, though more polling will be needed to be certain about that last point.

But the biggest caveat in all of this is even truer this year than in any other: Everything will depend entirely on who bothers to vote. I’ll vote, of course.

Full Disclosure: I’ll be voting for Hillary Clinton for US President.

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