Abigail is an alumna of Vanderbilt Political Review.
This article was written by Abigail Fournier and includes testemonies gathered by Fournier and Connor Saeman.
“For those that didn’t vote or voted third party because ‘of course she’s going to win’: she didn’t. So now you get to live with the consequences of your protest vote or your apathy.” These were the thoughts of Yamilla Saiegh, Vanderbilt sophomore from Miami Dade County, Florida. She shares a sentiment with many angry Democratic voters who notice that third party candidates collectively gained a quantity of votes that could have overcome Trump’s margins in important swing states like Florida and Michigan.
Third party candidates in 2016, including Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party and Jill Stein of the Green party, collectively took about 5.2 million votes on election day, which constituted 4% of the popular vote, according to Time election coverage. Back in late August/early September, these candidates were polling at even higher numbers when Gary Johnson peaked, polling at 9%. Evan McMullin, a former Republican from Utah who ran as an independent in the election, entered the race in August. He was transparent concerning his goals, which were to simply win one or two states and keep Trump and Clinton from gaining enough electoral votes to win the presidency. In this case, the House of Representatives would have been left to decide the president. McMullin ended up coming in third in his home state of Utah with 20% of the vote, where his chances were the best.
ABC Polls found that after the peak in third party support in August, backing for Johnson, Clinton, and McMullin generally decreased as election day approached. On November 7, these polls predicted that Johnson would get 4% of the popular vote and that Stein would get 1% of the popular vote; these predictions ended up overstating Johnson’s popularity, as he ultimately received 3% of the popular vote.
If Johnson and Stein had been less popular on voting day, we might have seen very different electoral college results. According to election data from Reason.com, these third party candidates collectively gained enough votes that they could have overturned final results in 13 states had their voters instead chosen to vote for one of the two major-party candidates. Seven of these 13 states were won by Clinton, including Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Maine. Six of these states went for Trump, including Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Utah. Perhaps the most pronounced difference that third party votes made was in Michigan, where Johnson and Stein collectively took 222,4000 votes (5% of the popular vote), according to NBC polling data. Trump only had a 15,600 vote lead over Clinton in Michigan, so these third party votes were especially important.
2016 was a very strong year for third party candidates. They took votes away from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in important swing states, and in many cases, they could have been the difference between Trump and Clinton victories. It is important to think about who Johnson and Stein took votes away from; according to data from Reason.com from before election day, Johnson’s support was 10% Democratic, 25% Republican, and 65% independent. In states like Florida where Gary Johnson received more votes than the margin between Clinton and Trump, it is reasonable to estimate that Trump’s margin could have been even higher if Johnson voters chose to vote for either Clinton or Trump, as most of them would have voted for Trump. However, if Stein’s supporters had voted for Hillary in Florida, these margins would have been different. This Florida data is reminiscent of the 2000 election, when Ralph Nader of the Green Party received 97,421 votes in Florida, when Bush beat Gore by only 537 votes in the sunshine state. Many speculate that Nader’s supporters secured Bush’s win in 2000, as it is reasonable to presume that Nader took more votes from Gore than he did from Bush.
Ultimately, it is impossible to guess how third party voters would have voted if they had chosen to vote for one of the major party candidates; however, it is important to understand their huge impact in this election. For many frustrated and surprised Democrats like Yamilla Saiegh, third party voters ruined Clinton’s chances this year.
This election brings into question whether we should vote strategically or based on who our political views align with the most. For voters who did not want Trump to win in Florida, voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson effectively meant giving Trump an advantage, as Hillary Clinton was his only opponent that had a chance of beating him. This is true for Republicans in states like New Hampshire who chose to vote for one of the third party candidates; in a way, this can be seen as a vote for Hillary, who ended up beating Trump with close margins.
As citizens of a democratic republic where we all have the right to make our own voting decisions, I argue that no one has the authority to tell someone else how to vote, especially whether to prioritize voting strategically or voting for the person that most aligns with our political views. However, I believe it is important for Americans to think about how their votes for third party candidates help and hurt major party candidates in their state. In this election, polling data prior to the election was misleading in many states like Florida where a Clinton win was forecasted. It is possible that voters here made the decision to vote for third party candidates on the premise that Clinton was likely to win the sunshine state regardless of their vote. Only time and research will tell whether voters considered the impact of their third party vote based on these false premises.
Here we include the testimonies of several Vanderbilt students who decided to vote for third party candidates.
“As an Independent voter from a solid blue state, I chose to vote for Gary Johnson, because his views most closely aligned with my own. Realizing that Johnson did not have a chance of winning the general election, I was hoping for a Clinton win on election day and was confident that my state would give its electoral votes to her. Therefore, I did not view my vote for Johnson as a vote for Trump; I viewed it as a protest vote, signifying my dissatisfaction with both candidates. If I lived in a swing state, I certainly would have thought differently about my vote for a third party candidate. However, because Clinton was going to win my state no matter who I voted for, I decided to cast a vote for the candidate whose views most aligned with mine”
-Anonymous, Vanderbilt sophomore
“I am a Republican voter from a solid blue state (California), and I chose to vote for Gary Johnson. I will not apologize for voting the way I did, as I absolutely could not align myself with either Trump or Clinton. As a registered GOP voter I had to compromise in a significant way just to vote for a third-party candidate. I sacrificed my party loyalty to challenge two candidates that I did not think were fit to be president. I, a moderate conservative, should not have had to sacrifice most, if not all, of my core political principles in order to save this country from a misogynist reality TV star. Like many on this campus, I fear the direction this country is now headed. I only hope that we can all stop pointing fingers and start gearing up for an era of political uncertainty fueled by political unrest and unresolved divisiveness. We will need our country’s best minds observing, analyzing, and countervailing any failed efforts on the part of Trump to make America great again.”
-Anonymous, Vanderbilt sophomore
“So I think the two party system is just so broken. Both parties believe in such contradictory ideals. I definitely don’t agree with everything Gary Johnson does, but I felt like I didn’t want to vote for Hillary because it would only be to vote against Trump. I guess I just voted my conscience and even though I knew he wasn’t going to win the promotion of a multiple party system is important to me.”
-Anonymous, Vanderbilt junior