Sunday, May 29, 2016

What third parties CAN do

A third party cannot win the US presidency under the current system, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do a great deal to disrupt the process. In fact, it’s the only thing that third party candidates can do, and it’s the only thing they might accomplish this year.

Yesterday, I talked about the structural and systemic barriers preventing a third party candidate from being elected president. There’s another barrier I didn’t talk about, something Roger Green mentioned in a comment on yesterday’s post: To get into the presidential debates—critical for any third-party candidate to get enough attention to stand a chance of winning a state—they must poll at 15%, something no third party has yet done.

The debate issue is contentious one (and we saw how it went horribly wrong for Republicans in their primary campaign). In the general election, debates are controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-profit corporation set-up in 1987 as a joint venture by the Republican and Democratic Parties to control who gets to participate in debates.

The CPD has an obvious conflict of interest: They want to keep third party and independent candidates out of debates so that the two main parties’ candidates can receive all the attention. It has been repeatedly sued, most recently by the Libertarian and Green Parties, along with the parties’ 2012 and presumptive 2016 nominees, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, respectively. They allege the CPD is violating federal anti-trust laws by maintaining a monopoly. Johnson used the same argument in a 2012 lawsuit that was dismissed on a technicality, and Stein sued that same year on broader constitutional grounds. So far, the CPD has not lost in court, and it’s unlikely to lose before the 2016 debates—there just isn’t enough time.

So, if third parties are shut out of debates and the attention they bring, what can they do? They can act as spoilers, potentially handing the election to either the Republican or the Democrat.

In 2000, Ralph Nader was an important factor in costing Al Gore the presidency. He disputes that, of course, and others have called it into question, too. However, Nader made a deliberate decision to focus the latter part of his campaign only on swing states, and to campaign against Gore. That famously resulted in the Florida debacle, where George W. Bush defeated Gore by a mere 537 votes—0.01% difference—handing the state’s 25 Electoral Votes—and the presidency—to Bush.

Nader says that it wasn’t him, but the US Supreme Court that did that by stopping the recount, which is, in my opinion, blame-shifting. In his book, he admitted, "In the year 2000, exit polls reported that 25% of my voters would have voted for Bush, 38% would have voted for Gore and the rest would not have voted at all." Assuming that’s correct, and voters had really voted that way, it would have been enough to give Florida to Gore.

The point is not really whether it was Nader alone who cost Gore Florida, and so, the presidency. After all, there were other minor candidates running in the state, as well as an extremely confusing “butterfly” ballot design that helped far right extremist candidate Pat Buchanan and hurt Gore. But what all this does show is that minor parties and candidates can, under the right circumstances, determine which of the two main parties wins a state.

It’s this “spoiler effect”, one of the biggest and worst flaws of the first past the post voting system used in most US elections, that is the one thing that third parties can achieve relatively easily. To do so, a minor candidate doesn’t need to win a state, they only need to take away enough votes from the most ideologically similar candidate so that the ideologically dissimilar candidate can win the state.

This is what’s could happen in 2016.

The common wisdom at the moment is that with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Drumpf unpopular, this will create opportunities for third party candidates. It’s easy to see why people would think that: According to Gallup, Hillary has “net favourable” rating of -14 and Donald has a “net favourable” rating of -27 (those are both MINUS, by the way). Does that create some room for third party candidates? Maybe, but not as much as pundits say.

First, as I said yesterday, some disaffected Democrats and supporters of Bernie Sanders may vote Green, and some disaffected Republicans may vote Libertarian, but at this point there’s still no reason to think that will be the case for large numbers. The polls showing the presumptive Libertarian nominee riding so high are happening at a time when the Democratic race is not yet officially settled, and the Republican race has just been. Once Hillary is the official Democratic nominee and facing off against Donald as the official Republican nominee, most voters will—as they always do—coalesce around the two candidates. It's possible that most disaffected voters will just stay home, but we can't yet measure that probability.

What NO one can know yet is how many disaffected voters there may be, and whether they’ll be disaffected enough to vote for a minor candidate. If there are a large number of such voters, all bets are off. Here are some things we can watch for:

For Republicans, if very high-profile Republicans openly and publicly refuse to endorse Donald, that would undermine him. But if very high-profile Republicans openly and publicly endorse the Libertarian candidate, that could spell real trouble for Donald. I don’t personally expect either to happen, but the second one in particular could dramatically change Donald’s chances of winning in November because it would give Republican voters and Republican-leaning Independents “permission” to vote for the Libertarian Party candidate.

For Democrats, we know that some of Bernie’s most ardent fans will pledge to vote for the Greens, but whether or not it’s a significant number will depend on Bernie: If he refuses to endorse Hillary, it will cause trouble for her, but if he endorses the Green Party candidate, it will mean real trouble. Also, if the Democratic National Convention is a replay of the ugly scenes in Nevada, it could turn off mainstream Democratic voters and Democratic-leaning Independents, who may just stay home on Election Day, amplifying the effect of any of Bernie’s supporters who actually do vote Green.

This means that Hillary’s chances of winning the presidency and the Democrats’ chances of retaking Congress have a lot more potential obstacles in the road than does Donald’s chances of winning or the Republicans’ chances for keeping control of Congress.

Add it all up, and while a third party candidate cannot win the presidency, one could easily determine which of the two major party candidates wins particular states, and that could determine which party wins the White House.

My punditry

At the moment, it looks to me that the person who would do the most to drive Republican voters to the Libertarians is Donald himself, if he runs his general election campaign like he did his primary campaign. For Democrats, much rides on what Bernie does, but his actions will affect progressive independents more than Democrats, since that’s who his base is. However, Democrats will need at least some of Bernie’s people to vote for them if they’re to win the White House and retake the US Senate (due to Republican gerrymandering, it’s unlikely Democrats can retake the US House, unless Hillary has a landslide victory, and that seems improbable).

It also looks to me as if the third party most likely to benefit from all this is the Libertarian Party, who will take votes from Donald far more than from Hillary. If that’s the case, it will improve Hillary’s chances of winning the presidency, but by itself it does nothing to help Democrats trying to retake the US Senate.

We’re still more than five months from the US general election, and a great many things may change, things that could affect the eventual result. While no third party can win the presidency, they may well play a role in who does win, because that’s all they can do.

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