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Is This the Year of the Third-Party Candidate?

Libertarians Gary Johnson and Bill Weld may offer a chance for Republican voters to cast a principled vote without having to cross over to the Democrats.

By Seth Masket


Ross Perot delivers his concession speech on November 03, 1992. (Photo: Paul Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Third-party presidential candidacies have a terrible track record. They sometimes start off with some interest and support, but ultimately the public votes overwhelmingly with the two major parties. This year, however, might be an exception.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying there will be substantial support for a third party this year because Americans are fed up with the two-party system. Americans are always fed up with the two-party system. Particularly at this time of year, when people have been watching all the internal struggles of the parties laid bare in contested primaries and caucuses, and the parties have finally settled on nominees who were not necessarily the enthusiastic choices of all party members, the major parties just don’t look that great.

This is right around the time in the cycle when a third-party alternative looks pretty appealing. Indeed, it was in June of 1992 that Ross Perot was leading a three-way presidential race with 39 percent of voter support. (President Bush was in second place at 31 percent, with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton trailing at 25.) Of course, that advantage didn’t last. Perot ultimately pulled a substantial vote share but didn’t win a single state; those were split among the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.

The party is not uniformly supportive of its nominee, and that’s a signal that party voters won’t miss.

Perot’s campaign was unusually successful, but the same basic pattern tends to hold from election to election. The major parties look vulnerable over the summer, with voter loyalties in flux, but months of campaigning have the effect of bringing partisan voters home. This is why all minor parties combined pulled only 1.85 percent of the presidential vote in 2012 and just 1.54 percent in 2008. It’s also why the Democratic and Republican parties hold virtually every congressional and state legislative seat in the country.

But could this year be different? A few factors suggest it might be. For one, the major parties’ presidential nominees have unusually high unfavorability ratings. Hillary Clinton’s are perhaps not astronomically awful, and may be just where we’d expect any Democratic nominee’s ratings to be in an era when members of one party so despise the other. But Donald Trump is an unusually loathed nominee, and seems to be becoming more so with each new day’s statements.

Now, it’s certainly possible for a party to do well even with a candidate with high unfavorability ratings, so long as party leaders stick together. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for Democrats this year—Bernie Sanders appears to be arranging his concession to Clinton and his supporters are likely to embrace her candidacy, with virtually all major party elites signaling support for her.

This is not the case on the Republican side. It took Speaker Paul Ryan a month to endorse Trump, and he immediately followed that endorsement with a condemnation of Trump’s utterances about Judge Gonzalo Curiel as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Last week, Mitt Romney and other Republican elites strongly criticized Trump.

These criticisms are unlikely to derail Trump’s nomination next month. But they do strongly suggest that the party is not uniformly supportive of its nominee, and that’s a signal that party voters won’t miss.

Republican voters, however, even if they’re disgusted with Trump’s comments, would need somewhere else to go, and they’re highly unlikely to vote for Clinton. That’s where a third party can offer an outlet. And the Libertarian Party, in particular, has put together an unusually serious and experienced ticket. Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, both former governors, offer a chance for Republican voters to still cast a principled vote consistent with many of their preferences without having to completely cross over to the Democrats.

And the Libertarian platform offers a considerable amount for many Republican voters to like. To be sure, many Republicans who care deeply about an assertive American foreign policy or a strict anti-drug stance at home will find the Libertarians alienating, but the party may provide a welcome home to those who like the Libertarian tenets of low taxes, minimal business regulation, and maximal personal freedom.

In some ways, this is similar to what happened to Colorado Republicans in 2010, when many state Republican leaders felt they could not support Dan Maes, their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Many publicly indicated that former Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, running for governor under the American Constitution Party’s banner, was the true Republican in the race, and voters responded. It split the party’s vote that year, handing the race to Democrat John Hickenlooper, but chances are the Democrat would have won the race even if the party had stayed united behind Maes. And the Republicans still made substantial gains in other races that year, narrowly taking over the state legislature.

This offers a model for Republicans this year. Judging from polls so far, the presidency may be a lost cause for them. But should prominent Republicans announce their endorsement for the Libertarian ticket, it could signal to voters that there’s another choice. Instead of staying home, they could still cast a principled ideological vote for president, and perhaps they could go on to vote for Republicans further down the ballot.

This doesn’t mean the Libertarians are about to take the presidency or that the Republican Party is about to die off. But there are ways to play a bad hand that don’t lead to you leaving the table broke.