Why Third-Party Candidates Are Doomed—At Least This Year

61_Gary Johnson
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson talks to the media after receiving the nomination during the national convention held at the Rosen Center in Orlando, Florida, on May 29. Third-party candidates face nearly insurmountable barriers to being competitive in U.S. elections. Kevin Kolczynski/REUTERS

Updated | The Libertarian Party is having a moment. The party—almost always a fringe-y afterthought in American elections—is getting a wave of national media attention coming out of its Memorial Day weekend convention, where it picked two popular former Republican governors for its presidential ticket. Combined with the historic unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and buzz about a potential independent presidential run by a #NeverTrump Republican, hype is building that 2016 could be the year an independent or third-party presidential candidate finally breaks America's two-party choke hold and mounts a truly competitive race for the White House.

That's not going to happen. Whether it's Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson or conservative writer David French (whom pundit Bill Kristol is reportedly recruiting to run), third party or independent presidential candidates face severe institutional barriers to viability—real and, perhaps even more importantly, as perceived by American voters. On top of that, they face an electoral climate of hyperpartisanship unlike anything previous third-party candidates like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader ever faced, where the drive to beat the opposing party trumps all else.

It's unlikely in the extreme that 2016 is the election that ushers in a third-party or non-party candidate to the White House. But the exasperation with the status quo could very well make it a tipping point. There is a movement, gaining ground in the states, to change the way elections are held, even replacing a system where the candidate with a plurality (but not necessarily a majority) of votes can win the race, which could make challengers from outside the two-party system a real force in American politics.

Johnson, the governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003 and the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee in 2012, pointed out on C-SPAN Tuesday morning that both he and his running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, "got re-elected by bigger margins the second time than the first time" in Democrat-dominated states "by being penny pinchers and socially liberal."

"Doesn't that speak to potentially broad appeal?" He asked, rhetorically.

In theory, yes. But in practice, electoral appeal is necessary but not sufficient. First, there's the matter of getting on the ballot in all 50 states, each with their own unique, often byzantine requirements. The Libertarian Party has leapt that hurdle. But any independent candidate who jumps in the race at this late date would face the herculean task of gathering enough signatures to get his or her name on ballots across the country. That's why even a well-financed, serious figure like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has toyed with jumping in but decided it's just too hard to run as an independent.

In Arizona, for example, a presidential candidate can qualify for the ballot by being nominated by a "recognized political party," either one that has received 5 percent of the vote in the last presidential or gubernatorial race or whose members amount "at least two-thirds of 1 percent" of the state's registered voters. There are also ways for a party or a candidate not affiliated with a party to register for the ballot via petition, but it requires thousands of signatures.

There's a more fundamental challenge to third-party candidates, however. America's winner-take-all or plurality vote elections—where the candidate with the largest number of votes in the race wins the seat, regardless of the proportion of the vote he or she won—favors just two parties, rather than three or more, a reality that's known in political science as Duverger's law after French sociologist Maurice Duverger. That's because a party or candidate can win a sizable chunk of the vote in a given district or state and still walk away with nothing—no seats or delegates, depending on the race—because they didn't win the most votes among the candidates. Proportional representation voting systems, which prevail in most democracies, awards a party a certain number of legislative seats proportional to the percentage of the vote they won nationally or within a given region.

There's been plenty of debate about how well Duverger's law applies internationally. But there's little dispute that the U.S. system—with its single-member congressional districts and an electoral college selecting the president—discourages smaller parties from forming. It also discourages voters from voting for those alternative parties, in what may be considered a "wasted vote."

Trump warned Republican voters of that exact risk in a recent Twitter tirade. Reacting to a Tweet by conservative pundit Bill Kristol, Trump tweeted, "the Republican Party has to be smart & strong if it wants to win in November. Can't allow lightweights to set up a spoiler Indie candidate!" It's just the latest spin on an age-old argument against third-party candidates. In a 1995 Political Science Quarterly article, professors Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, Phil Paolino and David W. Rohde note that going all the way back to 1932, "supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt urged Americans not to waste their vote on Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate." Fast-forward to 1968, when South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond urged Palmetto State voters to support Republican Richard Nixon over segregationist George Wallace, who was running on the American Independent Party ticket, because "a vote for Wallace is a vote for [Democrat Hubert] Humphrey," they write.

The authors found evidence of what's called a "psychological effect" on voter decision not to support a third-party or independent candidate in 1968, 1980 and 1992, though it didn't have as strong an impact as the technical barriers inherent in the electoral system. Some experts, however, think it could be an even more potent force in 2016, given how rigid partisan identities have become.

There's been plenty of research that shows Americans are becoming more polarized, not only along political lines, but also based on their entire identities, which are wrapped up in those voting behaviors. Democrats are more diverse, secular and urban, while Republicans have become more white, religious and rural. It's the product of a multi-decade process that journalist Bill Bishop labeled "the Big Sort," in his 2008 book of that name. And it's intensified the desire for voters on each side of the partisan divide to win national elections, even when they don't much care for their own candidate.

University of Maryland political science professor Lilliana Mason says that social psychology research going back to the 1970s demonstrates that "when you're strongly identified with a group, like a party, it can be more strongly motivating for you to win than for you to ensure the greater good," i.e., supporting a third-party candidate you believe is more qualified. For example, researchers have found that when an individual has a choice between granting all participants the same amount of resources or getting more resources for his or her designated group (even though the amount is less than the egalitarian scenario), they consistently choose the latter.

"It's a very psychological, primal feeling," says Mason, who specializes in political psychology. And "it's connected to self-esteem." So the more not just your ideology, but your cultural and racial identity are wrapped up in which party wins the election, the bigger the threat to your self-esteem. And the less you're likely to consider an outlier candidate.

Branding is also a barrier for a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson. The Democrat and Republican brands are now "powerfully indicative of how people are going to vote," say Rob Ritchie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit organization that advocates for more representative election systems. For the Libertarians or another third party, "There's a lot of work they'd have to do to gain the trust for their brand, their party to replace an existing one," Ritchie says. He thinks an independent, as opposed to a third-party candidate, would have a better shot in this populist-tinged election, because they can make the argument that they are running to look out for the average American and not beholden to any party agenda. "We have seen independents, when they can cross that threshold of viability, do pretty well," says Ritchie, pointing to Alaska Governor Bill Walker, former Maine Governor and current Senator Angus King and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.

But to prove viability, an independent needs to be able to get on the ballot and get in the general election debates, with thresholds that are very hard for a candidate without a party to meet. In 2016, candidates must be polling at 15 percent in national polls and appear on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College to be included in the debates.

There are changes afoot to break down some of these barriers at the state and local level. Cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota; San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley California, now select some local officials via what's known as "rank choice voting," where each voter ranks their top three choices for an office, and if no candidate win a majority of first choice votes on the first ballot, then the number of second and possibly third choices are added in, until someone reaches a majority. That eliminates the concern about "wasting" a vote on an independent candidate, because if they lose in the first round, your votes goes to your second choice pick.

This November, Maine will vote on a ballot initiative that would implement rank choice voting statewide. California, meanwhile, has begun using a nonpartisan voting system for state and congressional contests, in which the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, compete in the general election. Other states, like Louisiana, hold run-off elections for state office if no candidate wins a majority in the first round.

Not all of these changes necessarily favor an independent or third-party candidate, but they all threaten to shake up a rigid two-party dominated system. Such experimentation, combined with an uproar over both Democrats' and Republicans' primary process, which favor registered party voters and party insiders, and broad dissatisfaction with the two parties' nominees, are likely to prompt a re-examination of how Americans choose their politicians—and why there are such limited choices to begin with. But getting from dissatisfaction to actually changing the system nationally will be a long-term process—and it may require a complete party crack-up, like the collapse of the Whigs in the 1850s, which gave rise to the Republican Party.

"I think that the dam will break at a certain point," says Ritchie. "I don't think it will do it this year."

Correction: This story was corrected to reflect the fact that our current election system is not based on majority voting but on plurality voting—where a candidate can win a race by having a plurality of the votes, even if it's not a majority.