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How Trump Pushed Third-Party Voters To Choose Biden In 2020

Published: Friday, November 20, 2020 - 12:22pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: When Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, one of the key reasons may have simply been the impact of third-party candidates like Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. In 2020, the effect is less clear, but Jo Jorgensen, this year's Libertarian nominee, got 1.84 million votes nationally. Did that help decide any states in Joe Biden's favor? And what's the outlook for third parties more generally? To talk about that, I'm joined by Matt Welch. He's editor-at-large for Reason. So, Matt, how would you compare Jo Jorgensen's impact with what we saw from Stein and Johnson in 2016?

MATT WELCH: The biggest impact the third-party voters had in 2020 is perversely not in voting for the third party in 2020. By which I mean, it's what happened to Gary Johnson voters and Jill Stein voters from 2016. What did those people do? Because the total third-party vote back in 2016 was about 7.8 million people. That's a lot. This time it's going to end up at around 2.6, 2.7 million. Those 5 million people went somewhere. And what we have discovered both in looking at pre-election polls and — with the usual grain of salt about polls — but also in the results everywhere. Like, state after state, Donald Trump got basically the same percentage — give or take a few states — that he did last time. But he didn't add any of those voters. Those voters went overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. So that's the biggest impact that they had. Jo Jorgensen, who's not a very well-known person at all, a Clemson University psychology lecturer, she did the second-best result in the history of the Libertarian Party, which, granted, they don't have a history of doing exceedingly well. But that's 1.2%, which is bigger than much higher named candidates, including Gary Johnson back in 2012 — Gary Johnson had been a successful two-term governor. So that suggests that the people who at this point stay in the Libertarian Party, they might just be kind of Libertarians at this point. There's a, there is a permanent vote that's larger than it used to be in that party right now. The impact on the race is more, however, about where the kind of spike vote in third party interest — it was the highest in 20 years in 2016 — where those votes went. They did not go for Donald Trump, they did not like Donald Trump.

GOLDSTEIN: So can we make the assumption that the five million or so people of those folks who ended up going for Biden, did they go for Biden for the same reason it seems a lot of folks who were independents did? They were just a little bit sick of the Trump drama, the Trump rhetoric?

WELCH: Yeah, I think that is completely safe to say. I mean, if you think about voted for Gary Johnson-Bill Weld in 2016, there were, by definition, people who didn't want to vote for, for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, in this case. Joe Biden, for his margin of victory — I mean, think about it. He's going to beat Donald Trump by about 6 million votes. The difference in third party votes is about 5 million votes. I mean, you could — it's not the same people and don't make that that mistake — but still, you can't help but notice that overlap. So he will depend, his margin of victory depends on voters who were not enthusiastic necessarily about his platform to the extent they knew anything about it at all. It's people who did not like Donald Trump — either his policies, you know, if they're libertarian voters, they probably don't like Donald Trump's authoritarian tendencies, his immigration policies, his anti-free trade policies, his big government policies — he expanded government faster than Barack Obama did, measured by dollars. So they probably didn't like any of that. But mostly it's they just don't like the chaos, don't like the guy. So that is not a mandate for a Green New Deal necessarily for those people. Maybe Green Party voters who are voting for him want the Green New Deal. But I think it's more an anti-Trump vote and a sign that Trump was able to grow his vote but not grow his percentage just because it was a bigger election. He couldn't convince people outside of the tent to come in for him.

GOLDSTEIN: So Matt, what moves the momentum, what moves the needle forward for whatever non-Republican or Democrat out there when it comes to running for president, let's say the next time around? Is there more of an open field as we see that a lot of folks voted for Joe Biden simply because they didn't really like Donald Trump or thought Biden was likable but we didn't like his policies, whatever it may be? Does it take where we're at right now in 2020, the fact that, frankly, a lot of people — 2016 this goes as well — people were not that excited about the two major party candidates. Does that move the needle at all toward not getting a third party candidate with Ross Perot-level percentages, but at least something that really has an impact across the country, not just in select states?

WELCH: A lot of it will depend on what kind of implosion happens or does not happen in both parties, right? The Republican Party is going through its last Trumpism spasm, and we'll see how long that lasts. Could be a long time, who knows? The Democratic Party is always willing to have some kind of, you know, moderate versus [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] AOC fight, the Bernie Bros versus the moderates. That could happen as well, and that will impact it. The thing to think about it: 2018 midterms, which is the highest turnout midterms in 100 years, was terrible. It was a wipeout for all third parties and independent candidates. They undershot their polling by so much. Why? Because when you when you really think that the opposing team is going to do horrible things or are just horrible people themselves, you vote for the people to vanquish them, regardless of your lack of affection for the people that you were voting for. So how do you break that cycle? This is one reason why I argue that Jo Jorgensen's total this year is damn impressive. One point two percent. OK, it's tiny. But the fact that she's an unknown person outside of the Libertarian Party and not particularly well-known within says that at least there's, there's some vote there. I know for a fact that people like Justin Amash, the congressman from, from Michigan who became the first Libertarian congressman this year when he switched parties. He was thinking about running for president. And part of the reason why he did not this time around was because the field, the backdrop was so bad. So if the backdrop becomes good, if major parties are engaging in some kind of off-putting civil war amongst themselves, then that opens the space for people with much higher name recognition and, and much better kind of political skill, including a Justin Amash character in that case for the Libertarian Party, but other people for the Greens or others, to open the door for something that expands broader. But it's hard. We have a two-party system.

GOLDSTEIN: Matt Welch is editor-at-large of Reason. Matt, appreciate the time.

WELCH: Thank you very much.

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