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Do Third Party Candidates Actually Have a Chance?

Nov. 8, 2016
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This election has been unusual, to say the least. With two major candidates whose likability ratings are remarkably low, many voters are looking for an alternative in the form of a third-party candidate. In this case, that would most likely be Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party. 

While a third-party candidate has never won a presidential election, they certainly have been a part of elections for a long time. According to Bloomberg Politics:

“Since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 established a Republican-Democrat duopoly, third-party candidates have competed in some two dozen presidential elections, and all suffered crushing defeats.”

So, if history is any signifying factor, the future is likely bleak for Johnson and Stein. 

Johnson has generally hovered around 10% in the polls (according to the New York Times, his national polling average is about 8%), which is somewhat high for a third-party candidate this late into the election. However, Dr. Stein’s average is even lower, and some polls don’t even include her by name; they just incorporate her into the “other” category. 

Polling percentages are particularly crucial for the third party candidates as the Commission on Presidential Debates will only allow candidates to participate in the debates if they have an average of 15% nationwide.

Participating in the debates would most definitely be the best way for either candidate to get a significant shot at those precious electoral votes. However, gaining enough points in the polls to even be allowed to debate will prove difficult for the third-party candidates. 

So if Clinton and Trump are so disliked, why aren’t these third-party candidates gaining in the polls? 

First and foremost: money. 

Johnson’s and Stein’s funds aren’t anywhere near the colossal amounts of money raised by Clinton and Trump. As of August 31, the Clinton campaign has raised nearly $800 million, and the Trump campaign has raised just over $400 million. Meanwhile, Johnson has raised a mere $8 million and Stein even less. 

Second, but equally as important, American politics are currently in a state of extreme polarization. Meaning, Americans are so extraordinarily opposed to the party or candidates whose ideologies are opposite of their own that they are willing to vote for a less-than-ideal candidate if it means preventing “the other side” from winning.

That being said, even with two widely disliked major candidates, it will still be difficult for Stein or Johnson to get a major advantage in the election. However, as we’ve seen many times in the history of American politics, anything really can happen (just ask Al Gore). 

What everything boils down to is the electoral college. 

The electoral college is (mostly) a winner take all system. If a candidate wins the majority of the popular vote in a state, he or she wins that state’s electoral votes. So, it’s possible for a candidate to win the nationwide popular vote but not the Presidency (aka the 2000 election). It’s all about that magic number: 270. A candidate needs to have a majority (at least 270) of the 538 electoral votes to win the Presidency. 

But what happens if no candidate gets 270 electoral votes? 

Laid out in the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the process that should be followed if no candidate wins 270 electoral votes: the House of Representatives would pick the president from the top three candidates with the most electoral votes. All of each state’s representatives would have to discuss among themselves and choose a candidate to vote for because each state delegation would receive just one vote. Then, the candidate who wins at least 26 state delegations will become the president-elect. 

Hypothetically, one of the third-party candidates, having gained significant traction, could get enough popular votes in a few states to win those states’ electoral votes, thereby preventing one of the major party candidates from winning the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the presidency and forcing a House election. If that happened, the representatives would not be required to vote for the candidate with the plurality, meaning a third-party candidate with little electoral votes could be elected President of the United States.

So, while this election isn’t completely guaranteed to be won by one of the two major party candidates, Johnson and Stein will still have a tumultuous mountain to climb if they plan on seeing success come November. 

Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman