12 July 2016
Third parties in the U.S. Now or never?
In the media, at least, political observers seem to agree that the U.S. faces one of its worst choices ever in the upcoming Presidential election, with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump carrying high unfavorable ratings into the general campaign. Surely, this is the moment for an independent party to get the American people's attention. Shouldn't that be more the case this year than even in 1992, when Ross Perot got 19% of the popular vote? So far, it seems not to be the case. The most generous estimates of early support for the two strongest alternate candidates, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green nominee Jill Stein, give them a combined 15% of people surveyed, most of that going to Johnson. Johnson's support is likely to grow significantly from the 1% of the popular vote he got in the 2012 election, but despite his credentials as a former governor and former Republican his support seems likely to max out at about 10%, despite a seemingly quixotic effort launched today to win over fans of Bernie Sanders who are disappointed over his inescapable endorsement of Clinton. At the National Public Radio website, Danielle Kurtzleben attempts to explain (in advance) why neither Johnson nor Stein is likely to top Perot's turnout in 1992. She observes that Americans seemed as dissatisfied with the choice between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton 24 years ago as they are now with Hillary Clinton vs. Trump. The difference, she claims, is that more people in 1992 were equally dissatisfied with Bush and Clinton and thus ready to listen to an independent appeal. In 2016, while Trump and Hillary Clinton's unfavorable ratings are both high, comparatively few people view both with equal disfavor. The Age of Clinton, beginning after the 1992 vote, has seen a hyperpolarization of the electorate, Kurtzleben claims, that leaves little room for the plague-on-both-your-houses mentality that benefits third parties. Voters are more partisan and take politics more personally than ever, and many will vote for Trump to stop Hillary, or vote for Hillary to stop Trump. When election discussions are dominated by how unacceptable one candidate or another is, there's little room for experimental voting outside the standard party boxes. Johnson is growing somewhat stronger, it seems, mainly because so many Republicans despise Trump, but his support will be limited inevitably by the imperative to stop Hillary. Despite the Sanders campaign, fewer Democrats feel as alienated from their nominee, and so Stein's support remains very small. Kurtzleben's analysis makes sense, but there's arguably an even simpler explanation for independents' failure to gain much traction, and that's the enduring American feeling that a vote cast for a candidate assumed unlikely to win, no matter if he or she comes closest to your own views, is a vote wasted. Elections are a sort of team sport, after all, and Americans want to be on the winning team. The problem with that line of thinking is that the nation is everybody's team, and with a choice limited to Trump and Clinton our team is likely to lose badly, if not in November than over the next four years.