Can a Third Party Candidate Win? A brief History.

8/9/2016 by Dylan James Harper

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Even if most people are sick of hearing about it, the presidential election is far from over. The effects of a surprising Bernie Sanders candidacy are still being felt, particularly on social media, where frustrated Bernie fans have turned to Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein or libertarian mainstay Gary Johnson. Politically minded hip-hop artist Immortal Technique (coincidentally one of the musicians that heavily influenced me to become more engaged politically as a kid) recently endorsed Stein in a brief video posted to her Facebook. His reasoning was simple: she is less likely to have corporate favors she’s going to have to pay back once in office.


This is somewhat of a compelling case, and one Sanders made as well when he was still in the primary race. Third party candidates, which appear to be having a banner year on social media, are leaving many with reasonable questions: can a third party candidate win? Will voting third party hurt one of the two major party candidates? Do Stein and Johnson really believe vaccines cause autism? For my first post here as Political Editor, I’m going to try to answer all the third party candidate questions I’ve seen floating around, and dispel some myths about voting third party that have plagued modern elections for decades. 


Can a third party candidate win?


​No. That’s the short answer at least. For a more thorough answer, it helps to look at the history of the third party candidates, which starts way back in 1856. It was a simpler time, when everyone was as outwardly racist as Trump, and entire political party thought it a good idea to call themselves the Whigs. Speaking of the Whigs (how were they taken seriously?), they are the reason for the first serious third party candidate in United States history, Millard Fillmore. The Whigs were one of the two major parties, but they collapsed as a coalition of anti-immigrant Southern Whigs broke off to form the American Party (why does that sound so familiar?). Fillmore ran as a third party candidate against the Republican John Fremont, and Democrat and eventual president James Buchanan.


​There are two important takeaways from this incident: first, The American Party wasn’t at all like the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, both of which have been established and running candidates for many presidential elections, they were essentially a rebranding of one of the two major political parties. The Whigs split and became either American Party voters, or Republican voters; Republicans ended up taking more, and thus replaced the Whigs as one of the two major parties. The second important takeaway was that The American Party lost, and, and dissolved shortly after.

Jump ahead to 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran as a part of The Bull Moose Party, which was extremely progressive for its day. This is widely considered to be the most successful attempt by a third party candidate in history, and it’s easy to see why: Teddy had already been president. He was able to rack up 27% of the vote, more than sitting president Howard Taft.

Unfortunately for him, and the short lived Bull Moose Party, he essentially split his constituency and handed Democrat Woodrow Wilson the presidency. Remember, this is the most successful a third party candidate has ever been, losing by 15% and having the party whose views were furthest from his take the presidency.

Both of those examples were before the modern presidency though, so maybe it’s easy now right? Nope. It’s far more difficult to be a third party candidate now and the reason why boils down to one word: money. As of the time this article is being written, the two major parties have raised over $900,000,000. NINE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS. By comparison, Gary Johnson has raised $1.4 million, and Jill Stein less than $900,000; that’s less than $3M total, compared to $900M. One might think “well, if we got the word out...” but that’s not the issue. Remember when Immortal Technique mentioned the appeal of Stein being linked to the fact that she isn’t tied to corporate backers? Well, that hasn’t come without consequence. The Democrats and Republicans, in part as the result of the Citizens United ruling (although, if we’re being honest, this was a problem long before that), have raised hundreds of millions of dollars from corporations and political action committees (PACs).

The system as it currently exists favors two major political parties. It’s just too difficult for third party candidates to maintain the independence that makes them distinct from the major parties, while also raising the kind of money necessary to compete in a modern presidential election. Historically, and contemporarily, third party candidates just can’t compete.

Why do we only have two major parties?

Well... (jump to the bottom for video) 

Okay, it’s not actually all Alexander Hamilton’s fault, but he and Jefferson did kinda start it. George Washington ran without a connection to a major political party, but within his cabinet Hamilton formed the anti-slavery, pro-Wall Street federalists (he was a complex guy), while Jefferson formed the Democratic Republicans. In their defense however, the system was set up to be a two party system.

In the United States our elections run on a winner-take-all system at essentially every level. Remember how much money the two major parties raised? Well, it’s hard to compete against one of those when the prize for second place (or third) is nothing. There is no silver medal, nor bronze. A good analogy here is to imagine two empty buckets, side by side. Ten people are given an apple and told to put it into the bucket they think is best. The first nine people go with five putting their apples in the bucket on the left, and four putting their apples in the bucket on the right. The last person decides to put their apple in a third bucket. Who wins? The bucket on the left, obviously. What did the third bucket get as a result of winning that single apple? Nothing. What about the bucket on the right, it got four apples? Also nothing. There is only one winner, and that makes it really difficult to play if you don’t have a great chance at winning.

This seems like a good time to mention that other voting styles exist around the world. There is a system called Ranked Voting, where you rank your choices instead of just picking one person, and if your first choice doesn’t win, your vote goes to your second choice, or third choice, and so on. If the United States had such a system, one could vote for a third party candidate, and, should they lose, have their vote go to a major party candidate that best represents their views. This wouldn’t solve all the problems in the United States, but it’d sure help out a lot; as is, the system is setup to create two major parties, and it’s succeeding.


Does a vote for Stein mean a vote for Trump?

Yes. Maybe. Okay, here is the deal. It’s somewhat impossible to prove whether the so called spoiler effect actually exists, because it’s impossible to know if someone who votes third party would have voted for a member of the two major parties if the third party candidate hadn’t been running. Ralph Nader is the biggest example of a potential spoiler, as the number of votes he got, as someone on the left side of the political spectrum, was enough that if they had instead gone to Gore, also someone on the left side of the political spectrum, he would have won Florida over Bush, and thus won the election. Would every single person who voted for Nader have voted for Gore had Nader not been running? It’s impossible to say. There was a poll done after the fact where 45% of Nader voters claimed they would have voted for Gore had Nader not run, which would still be enough to have given Gore the presidency, but hindsight is always great.

There are a lot of semantic issues on this topic, however, and one thing is perfectly clear: one of the two major party candidates is going to win the election. If there is one that is clearly better than the other, the only way to help them is to vote for them. If one is, for example, of the belief that Trump isn’t fit to be president, a vote for Hillary Clinton is the only way to actively vote against a Trump presidency.

Okay, but do Stein and Johnson really think vaccines cause autism?

The advantage, and disadvantage, of third parties is that they can have more extreme views. When it comes to radical issues that the mainstream isn’t ready for yet, this is a good thing. Keep in mind, anti-slavery advocates were once considered radical and often relegated to third parties. This is a double edged sword however, and often absurd views, such as the belief that vaccines cause autism - a myth that has been widely disproved - are often represented among third party candidates. Third party candidates are held to lower standards, there is no way around it. As a result Gary Johnson and Jill Stein both have some views that are, puzzling, to say the least. The only way to improve this is to hold them to a higher standard, which relates nicely to the final point.

What can I do to help support more independent politicians?

2016 has been a real rough year. Many of the biggest problems within the United States have been more visible than ever. It’s not an accident that Immortal Technique supported a third party presidential candidate this year; who wouldn’t want some radical change? Unfortunately, from a historical perspective, radical change is rarely a speedy endeavor. A third party candidate will not be president in this election, but that doesn’t mean that more independent people with radical views still can’t garner votes. Voter turnout in local elections is decreasing, with 2015 featuring a 72 year low. Local elections are far from perfect, but they currently represent the best opportunity to attempt to make radical views more mainstream.

Dylan James Harper is the Chief Political Editor for CSuiteMusic

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