In the 2000 election, Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore. This, however, is an oversimplification for the authentic discourse of the election 16 years ago. Sure, Bush won the necessary 270 electoral votes to become president, but he simultaneously lost the popular vote. Even more significantly, a liberal propelled the conservative Bush to victory.
Running with the liberally aligned Green Party, Ralph Nader appealed to a sizable number of the nation’s liberals and pulled away votes from Gore. Even though Gore was arguably the most environmentally conscious politician to run with a major party, uber-environmentalists maintained their loyalty to the Green Party. With Florida as the tipping point in the electoral college, Bush tallied 2,912,790 votes, Gore 2,912,253 votes and Nader 97,488 votes. Much to the chagrin of Gore, Nader altered the election. If just over 500 of Nader’s supporters decided to vote with the mainstream liberal party instead of the third party, it would be Gore’s name in the annals of American presidents.
Sixteen years later, we have a candidate just as capable of disrupting the election as Nader: Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Attracting a wide range of voters that include hardnose anti-government regulation conservatives and citizens simply in search of a better option than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Johnson may perhaps be more lethal to the other two candidates than Nader. While Nader split the liberals, Johnson can detract votes from both ideologies. With a conservative fiscal policy, a liberal social policy and a platform for military isolationism, Johnson has the potential to garner widespread appeal. In a CNN poll, six percent of the Democrats interviewed plan to support Johnson instead of Clinton. Even more noteworthy, 17 percent of the Republicans interviewed are voting for the Libertarian candidate. While Nader only split the liberals, Johnson can detract votes from both ideologies and take a sizable share of the popular vote.
Johnson has met all the requirements to be on the ballot in all 50 states. In some national polls, Johnson is polling as high as 13 percent. He will be eligible to participate in the national debates if he polls at 15 percent before the nationally-televised event, in which case it is highly foreseeable that his supporters will multiply.
However, the chances for Johnson only to detract votes away from the mainstream parties is far more likely than him ending up in the Oval Office. A vote for Gary Johnson — or any third-party candidate for that matter — is a vote against our current political system. With no major regional block that consistently supports a third party, a third-party candidate will not win a major election any time soon.
This is not to discourage voting for a third party. In fact, given the underwhelming candidates that the two parties have provided us, it’s understandable why 47 percent of Americans are heavily considering voting third party. However, if one plans to vote for an outsider, they must understand the reality of our political system. In practice, the current American political system is simply pitted against third-party candidates. Given the fundamental organization of our electoral process and the rare third-party achievement at local levels, major reform is needed in order to ensure lasting third-party success.
With our first-past-the-post voting system in a which a single candidate wins all the electoral votes, it’s incredibly difficult for an outsider candidate to make a dent in our two-party dominated elections. So while a third-party candidate may do well in the popular vote, victory is non-existent in the electoral vote. For example, third-party candidate Ross Perot attained 19,743,821 votes, equating to 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992. However, since third-party support is mostly spread across the nation, rather than a more preferable clustering of votes, he did not win plurality in any state, meaning zero electoral votes.
If third parties want to compete nationally, they must develop concentrated voting bases as opposed to thinly spread support. For example, let’s say Perot’s 19,743,821 voters were concentrated primarily in a handful of states as opposed to being divided across the nation. Perot would have then received electoral votes, making it actually possible for him to truly compete for the presidency. It’s the concentration of voters that matter — not the amount of supporters nationwide.
This leads to the third parties’ need to develop local support. In order for there to be a President Perot, Nader or Johnson, there must be electoral success for third-party government officials beginning at the local level. Currently, such success is a rarity. In the 1,265 American cities with a population of at least 25,000 residents, only four mayors ran as third-party candidates. Amongst the 50 governors, Alaska’s Bill Walker is the only one not to be affiliated with either the Republicans or Democrats. In the House of Representatives, Gregorio Sablan, the nonvoting delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands is the only person out of 441 members that is third-party. As evidenced by this slim third-party success across the levels of government, a concentrated Libertarian, Green, Reform (insert any third-party) voting base is non-existent. For substantial change in our two-party dominated political system, this needs to change.
Developing a loyal voting base at local levels (as opposed to attracting straggler voters from other mainstream parties) is crucial for third parties to have meaningful success. Before third parties can reasonably set their crosshairs on the presidency, they must be able to build up consistent and concentrated voting bases–and not just in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Brian Taggett is a College sophomore from Kalamazoo, Michigan