Could a Third Party 'Spoil' This Election? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Libertarian readers in the earlier installment of our discussion would be heartened by the new piece from Nora showing a surge of support for Gary Johnson:

If Gary Johnson wants to make it onto a primetime presidential-debate stage as the Libertarian Party’s nominee, he needs to qualify by polling above 15 percent. … Johnson just got good news: A poll released Tuesday morning shows the candidate with 10 percent of the national vote.

As Nora notes, that 10 percent is roughly twice as high as Johnson’s figures from 2012. But that boost isn’t enough to convince this reader, Mark, that Johnson has a real shot:

I would love to support alternative parties in the U.S. However, there are serious problems with current options. To name a few:

Most have very small or no local party infrastructure. The machinery that gets out the vote, arranges campaign events, gets petitions signed, etc., are crucial to national elections. The two most viable small parties, Greens and Libertarians, do have some local support and have had limited success getting local and even state candidates elected. But those successes are few and far between, and have had little effect on party growth.

Because they are so small, they have been refuges for the discontented and malcontents. Having followed Facebook pages and newsletters for Greens, I have been discouraged by the level of internal discourse, with little consensus even on the real role of the party: social pressure group or political party. Without a clear direction, the party flounders on many issues.

Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, the presidential candidates for the Greens and Libertarians, respectively, ran in 2012 and received little national support. Interested in their long-term goals, I’ve been watching their actions since, and I’ve been disappointed that both disappeared from public view until the 2016 elections rolled around. Rather than actively and publicly working to develop their parties nationally, they both did … something else.

This discussion begs the question of whether minority parties are even viable in our Constitutional system. In a parliamentary system, used in most other developed countries, minority parties have an active role in government, working together with other parties to form ruling or opposition coalitions. In our system, the very structure of the government seems to lead by default to a two-party system. Akhil Reed Amar, in America’s Unwritten Constitution, devotes an entire chapter to this issue (Chapter 10, “Joining The Party, America’s Partisan Constitution”). It’s well worth a thoughtful read.

Mark, like the earlier reader from Maine, claims that Ross Perot handed the 1992 election to Bill Clinton:

Recent third-party candidates have acted merely as “spoilers,” like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, who acted to split some votes away from major party candidates. In all cases, that was the specific intent of the candidates, in specific elections, and none have devoted additional time, before or after those specific elections, to develop grass roots party infrastructure.

Unless some serious, nationally prominent candidate or candidates specifically work to create and develop a serious alternative party, it will not happen. Sadly, the Green Party, absent some major revisions, will not become that option.

The common assertion that Nader handed Florida and thus the election to Bush is pretty unimpeachable, but the claim that Perot stole the ‘92 election from Bush Sr. is dubious. Steve Kornacki has repeatedly tackled “the myth that just won’t die.” From his most recent debunking last year:

Yes, Perot did rack up a significant share of the vote in 1992 – 19%, the best for an independent since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. But there’s never been a shred of evidence that his support came disproportionately from Bush’s column, and there’s considerable evidence that it didn’t.

Let’s start with the basics. Clinton was elected with 43% of the vote, to Bush’s 37.5%, a difference of nearly six million votes. To overtake Clinton in a two-way race, then, Bush would have needed to gain the lion’s share of the Perot vote, about two-thirds of it. But in the exit poll conducted on Election Day, just 38% of Perot’s backers said Bush was their second choice. Thirty-eight percent also said Clinton was. “The impact of Mr. Perot’s supporters on the campaign’s outcome,” wrote The New York Times, “appears to have been minimal.” The Washington Post’s conclusion: “Ross Perot’s presence on the 1992 presidential ballot did not change the outcome of the election.”

Mark mentioned above that he’s “discouraged by the level of internal discourse” among the Greens. So is this reader, Mike from Vermont, when it comes to the Libertarians:

Dear Libertarian Party Members:

I used to be one of you. I was a volunteer for Gary Johnson in 2012 as a state campaign coordinator. But I noticed a trend within the LP that caused me to leave the party and just be a plain old independent. Despite Johnson (in 2012 and in 2016) being the only electable candidate, I heard then what I hear now: “He’s not libertarian enough with guns, or the wedding cake issue, or whatever.”

NO CANDIDATE IS PERFECT. Get over yourselves. You will never have a successful candidate that is staunch libertarian on every issue. Get over that notion right now.

I left the party why? I realized that the LP is no better than the other two; leaving no room for moderates and only wanting candidates who are willing to be extreme on one end or the other. Ask yourself this: How many Libertarians (with a big L) are home-grown in the party and have been successful at obtaining a spot as governor, Rep/Senate, President? There’s a reason for that. The LP has to depend on obtaining decent candidates from other parties. You can grow your own if you ease up a bit on the yankee-doodle rhetoric.

Case in point: Austin Peterson, the Marco Rubio of the LP. I admire the guy's spunk, but dear Lord, tone down the boilerplate responses. The guy has never held office of consequence, but yet he’s running for President? Same for John McAfee. How about getting on a school board or town council first?

If either one really cares about the LP, then they would back Johnson/Weld. A ticket like that is the only one that will get the Libertarians on the map. Otherwise, they will always be looked at as the “crack pop/Tea Party” spoilers.