A Brief Analysis of the Third Party Vote

I thought about adding “in 2016” to the title of this post but realized that I was actually going to be addressing more than just this past week’s results, so I left it as is.  Though little reported, this past Tuesday was a pretty successful one for alternative parties and, I will argue, unprecedented over the past one hundred years.

Libertarian Gary Johnson, though he had initially hoped to do much better, did win over four million votes, which is just about 3.25% of the popular vote.  Both of those numbers are three times larger than any previous Libertarian candidate.  In addition Green Party nominee Jill Stein received over a million votes, which is about 1%.  Though Ralph Nader got considerably more votes for the Greens in 2000, that was as much due to his celebrity as his party affiliation.  In total, all Third Party and Independent candidates got just over 5% of the vote.  Perhaps more significantly, if one is to believe the exit polling, that percentage was 8% among the youngest cohort of voters, boding well for their long term prospects for growth.

That being said, it is probably dangerous to read too much into the particular numbers.  The decision to vote for any candidate is a complex one and does not always signify approval of any or all of their policies.  And that applies to the Johnson or Stein voter as much as it does to the Trump or Clinton voter.  Because the number of Third Party voters is relatively small and is not seen as particularly important, they get nowhere near the attention that Democrat or Republican voters do.  I’m certain there must have been at least a few books or articles written by academics on this (and perhaps my academic friends could point me towards them) but I’m not familiar with any popular non-fiction on this topic.

Traditionally, when a third candidate has been fairly successful, it has been because they were already high profile political figures and ran what I will call “vanity campaigns.”  Whether it is Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson or George Wallace, these were campaigns that revolved around strong personalities who had a political ax to grind and were not particularly interested in building an alternative party that would survive them.  One can go back even farther in history to the Progressive and Dixiecrat revolt against Truman in 1948 or Bob La Follette’s Progressive party in 1924.  In each case, the “party” essentially came into existence in order to punish one or both of the major parties and withered away in the years after its most successful election.

In order to find an established Third Party which did better than the Libertarian Party this year, one needs to go all the way back to 1912 when the Socialist Party got 6% of the vote in a 4-way race, that also included Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose version of the Progressive Party.  (That election is the only time since 1856 that a Republican or Democrat finished third in the Presidential campaign.)  A quick overview of the Socialist platform included support for a number of then radical programs, such as Social Security, which are considered, not only mainstream, but “sacred cows” in today’s political environment.  So perhaps we might expect one or both of the major parties to look seriously at the Libertarian and Green message and, at the very least, try to co-opt that message, if not adopt some elements of their platforms.

But let me make an even bigger statement about this year’s campaign as it applies to alternative candidates:  both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were Independent candidates who, rather than take on the difficult task of building an alternative party, decided that one of the major parties was ripe for what was essentially a hostile takeover.  Trump, having managed a few such takeovers in his business career and not facing the “superdelegate” problem in the Republican Party that Sanders did in the Democrat Party, was successful.  Sanders, despite literally having the deck stacked against him, almost did the same.  To take it one step further, there are quite a number of Libertarians who would argue that Gary Johnson did the same thing in both 2012 and 2016.  It is instructive to remember that, just ten years earlier, neither Trump, Sanders nor Johnson were members of the political party whose nomination they sought this year.

Given the success of these “hostile takeovers” within the major parties and the relative strength of the Third Party vote this year, it is not unreasonable to believe that we may look back on this past campaign as a harbinger of things to come, not the statistical anomaly many people now think it is.

I want to explore this idea a bit further but, before I do, I want to rethink the traditional America political spectrum of liberal/conservative in some detail and try to build a three dimensional model which, I think, will better explain why we get the candidates and representatives we do.  Look for that in the next few days.  As always, thanks for following along.

(Correction:  Actually, the last established Third Party to exceed the Libertarian percentage this year was, in fact, the Socialist Party but they did it in 1920, when they received 3.4% of the vote.  Not that that changes much but I wanted to update it for the sake of historical accuracy.)


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