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Can A Third-Party Ticket Win In 2020?

In this week’s politics chat, we discuss the prospect of a third-party presidential candidate in 2020. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): We’re talking about one of our favorite subjects today: independent/third-party presidential bids. There’s been a lot of reporting/rumors of late that Ohio Gov. John Kasich (a Republican) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (a Democrat) could (maybe? probably not?) run on a “unity ticket” in 2020.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): THE JOHNS.

micah: So let’s talk about how serious we should take this — and how serious we should take other potential third-party tickets. (fyi: Nate’s on a plane.)

clare.malone: NATE’S ON A PLANE.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): 🐍 ✈️

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): More importantly, there is wifi on this PLANE!

micah: OK, so here’s our seriousness scale:

  1. Really, super serious (Ross Perot in 1992)
  2. Really serious (Robert La Follette in 1924)
  3. Serious (Perot in 1996)
  4. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (John Anderson in 1980)
  5. Meh (Ralph Nader in 2000)
  6. Bupkis (all other third-party bids ever)

natesilver: Wait … I object to the scale.

micah: Of course you do.

natesilver: Of course I do.

harry: Create your own scale, Nathaniel.

natesilver: How about:


Then Perot in 1992 is No. 3

clare.malone: Wow, I’m confused. Did I miss a President La Follette in civics class?

harry: George Washington won, and he wasn’t a member of any party.

natesilver: He was president of his local Elks lodge, I’m pretty sure.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): La Follette won his home state (Wisconsin) in 1924. I didn’t know that. 13 electoral votes. 17 percent of the national popular vote.

harry: Outside of Teddy Roosevelt, La Follette was the only non-major-party candidate to win a state outside of the South in the 20th century.

natesilver: That’s not very impressive given all those qualifiers, Harry. It’s like saying the Bills are the best team in football, outside the other 31 teams.

harry: That’s a trash opinion just like the Bills are a trash football team.

(Love you, Bills.)

clare.malone: Micah, restore order. Are we talking about THE JOHNS? And 2020?

micah: So, implicit in my scale was the idea that the chances of an independent ticket winning are basically 0.

clare.malone: lol. Chat over.

micah: Pretending otherwise seems silly. But winning isn’t everything. Perot had a huge effect in 1992, for example.

natesilver: Oh, you are much too smug about this, Micah.

harry: I wonder who he learned that from.

natesilver: We’re gonna have some CONFLICT THIS CHAT!!!!!

clare.malone: Yessssss. Tension.

harry: (Too much?)

micah: FIGHT!

Go ahead, Nate, explain to us why the Kasich/Hickenlooper ticket is destined for the White House! (See what i did there?)

natesilver: OMG strawman much?

micah: haha

perry: We could have an eight-item scale, with Nate’s first two and Micah’s six after.

micah: Perry, stop trying to avoid the conflict!

perry: So to make this interesting at least — are we sure this ticket can’t win? This is your reminder that Donald Trump is president.

natesilver: Trump has some things in common with a third-party candidate, TBH.

micah: OK, new scale:

  1. Could win White House
  2. Could win some states
  3. Really, super serious (Perot in 1992)
  4. Really serious (La Follette in 1924)
  5. Serious (Perot in 1996)
  6. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (John Anderson in 1980)
  7. Meh (Nader in 2000)
  8. Bupkis (all other third-party bids ever)

micah: Where would you all put Kasich/Hickenlooper on that scale?

clare.malone: “Meh” — 7

The only kind of candidate who’s really going to disrupt comes from within one of the parties. Teddy Kennedy-esque.

harry: I’d put them in between No. 6 and No. 7. They could get 5 percent of the national vote, but why would people vote for them? If you can answer that, then that’s a start.

natesilver: Harry, because people want politicians who care about their fellow Americans — and not just the latest talking points. Because people remember what it was like when presidents were also leaders. Because at a moment of crisis, it’s time that both parties were part of the conversation again. Because … KASICHLOOPER!

perry: So imagine that it’s September 2020 and Trump is still behaving as he did after Charlottesville and making moves in the vein of his pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The Democratic presidential nominee is Bernie Sanders. In that world, Kasich/Hickenlooper could win Utah, for sure. But I’m struggling to think of other states. So I’m having trouble putting them on a scale.

clare.malone: Would that ticket win Colorado?

perry: I don’t think so.

harry: Perry is onto something with the thought that what may matter most is who the third-party ticket would be running against.

clare.malone: Do we think Trump will have really repaired his presidency that much? The trend line for it is not good.

natesilver: An important-ish mathematical point about third-party candidates is being missed here. The probability distribution for third-party candidates is highly skewed/asymmetric. So most of them are going to finish with like <=5 percent of the vote because voters won’t want to throw their votes away. But if they “catch on,” they can win — at least based on the fact that such candidates occasionally win gubernatorial and Senate races.

harry: Nate is essentially saying that there’s an all-or-nothing component to third-party bids.

natesilver: Right — and that it’s a bit tricky to estimate how fat the tail probability is.

clare.malone: So who would be the Perot of 1992 in 2020? It would have to be a well-known name.

natesilver: Perot is sort of unusual, actually — you don’t see very many third-party candidates finish with like 18 percent of the vote. That’s a weird number. Either they’re authentically competitive or they fall into single digits.

clare.malone: But it’s a weird time, no?

harry: We did a good video on Jesse Ventura winning the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial race. It was really important for Ventura in terms of continued viability that polls showed him as competitive.

perry: Yeah, that’s why I’m having trouble with this question. To me, the way Kasich wins is that he essentially replaces Trump as the de facto Republican candidate in the general election. He would need more of a Nikki Haley-type as VP, though.

clare.malone: It’s not necessarily someone in politics. If you get a viable independent candidate running, maybe they’re someone, like Perot, who has bona fides in the business world. There are a host of names like that out there now. What’s so crazy about thinking they would run?

micah: OK, so it seems like you all have more of an issue with the theory behind KASICHLOOPER than a third-party bid in 2020 generally. The theory behind a KASICHLOOPER bid in 2020 is that what the country really wants is moderation, right?

harry: It’s that they want a certain type of moderation, yeah.

clare.malone: See, my problem is that I think the country is extremist on all fronts right now. I disagree with that theory.

The majority of the voting public has huddled into their partisan corners over the past two years. It’s a bit wild to assert they’re looking for moderation. They’re looking for their side to win.

perry: Kasich is a moderate in tone. But I don’t see many Democrats voting for him, since he is fairly conservative on issues. I don’t think Kasich is where the center of the electorate is. A Joe-Manchin-type (liberal on size of government, conservative on culture) might be more where the voters are.

harry: It’s been argued that Trump is a “moderate.”

clare.malone: Well … except for his extremist governing style and heavy plays to partisanship.

natesilver: I worry whenever media elites identify “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” candidates as representing “the center” of the country, because loosely speaking, “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” reflects elites’ interests.

Trump is basically socially conservative and fiscally ambiguous, and there actually seems to be more of a constituency for that.

perry: Right. Michael Bloomberg/Howard Schultz/Business Guy x is the wrong kind of moderate.

micah: OK, let’s get specific then … build me a winning third-party ticket.

clare.malone: I think Perry is right that the country is culturally conservative. So I would start there.

natesilver: Trump is the president. And the VP is … Joe Manchin?

clare.malone: Nate isn’t playing the game 😞

natesilver: There’s a nontrivial chance that Trump quits the Republican Party.

clare.malone: Manchin could totally be on a ticket. Not with Trump, though.

perry: Something like Manchin and Sally Yates.

clare.malone: hah!

micah: Are there any culturally conservative legit populists out there?

harry: Jim Webb?

clare.malone: Played out.

perry: Too culturally conservative.

harry: Can I step back for a second here? What if the 2020 major-party nominees are Sanders and Trump?

Wouldn’t the rules change for who would be a successful third-party candidate?

perry: I’m assuming that’s the scenario because I think that makes this exercise more precise. But I think Trump has governed from the right on policy. Therefore, I don’t see a large number of core Republicans backing Kasich.

micah: What if it were Trump vs. Cory Booker?

clare.malone: Then you could get a serious third-party candidate who’s populist — challenging both on their credibility.

perry: The coalition of voters who think that a black guy running on free college is not sufficiently liberal is fairly small.

micah: Isn’t he super close to Wall Street, though?

harry: That’s certainly a critique of him.

perry: The third-party scenario that Nate was hinting at is worth thinking about:

Somehow, Trump becomes not the de facto Republican or those coalitions are somewhat mixed up — kinda the way Sen. Lisa Murkowski has won as an independent in Alaska. Like in 2016, if Jeb Bush were the GOP nominee and Trump ran as a third-party candidate, could Trump have taken most of Jeb’s expected voters?

harry: So it seems to me that the two ways we think a third-party bid in 2020 could work is if Trump goes third party or the Democrats nominate Sanders?

clare.malone: So let’s look at those two scenarios one by one, maybe?

micah: Yeah.

OK, first: Trump is the de facto third-party candidate. (fwiw, it feels like we’re a loooong way from that.)

clare.malone: But in that scenario, we’re asking who is running in the GOP primary then, is that correct? Who he’s up against?

perry: If there is a Mitt Romney/Kasich/Rubio/Scott Walker-style Republican v. Trump v. Sanders and somehow the party gets behind the Kasich/Rubio/Walker, I think Trump can win the South and Appalachia for sure — Alabama/Kentucky/West Virginia, etc.

natesilver: WOW. I’M BACK

harry: WOW.

micah: You were gone, Nate?

clare.malone: Trump as an outsider-y/third-party kind of candidate would ultimately lose. If the Republicans put forward someone like Rubio or Cruz (well, not Cruz — someone more well-liked), they could win a lot of Republican voters.

Trump might just be left with his hardcore base.

micah: But why are Republican voters abandoning Trump?

clare.malone: We’re assuming something has happened! Right? So, he’s done something that’s alienating a group of GOP leaders, and they’re airing their grievances vocally.

micah: We are, yeah. It just seems the more unlikely eventuality.

natesilver: Has anyone mentioned how a celebrity-led third-party ticket might overcome some of the problems with a politician-led third-party ticket?

clare.malone: Yeah, I did above — someone with really high name recognition.

I think it could also be a businessperson, not just a celeb.

perry: I think the opposite, a celeb, and not a businessperson.

clare.malone: It could be either — or both (Mark Cuban).

micah: Cuban! Or Oprah!

natesilver: I’m thinking more Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson than Cuban.

perry: I wonder if Cuban is in the “fiscal moderate, social liberal” group.

The Rock. Yes.

micah: Nate interviewed him (Cuban).

clare.malone: But Cuban feels a little different from a Bloomberg-type. He’s on TV shows. He’s more of an … approachable wealthy person? You get his wealth, he’s OK flaunting it. It’s very American!

perry: Cuban has the veneer of appealing to non-white people. (He owns a basketball team.) The Rock would actually have that appeal in a deeper way, I suspect.

harry: I don’t remember the last time I saw Cuban in a suit. I don’t remember the last time I saw Bloomberg in anything but a suit.

clare.malone: Bloomberg is sort of global cosmopolitan rich.

micah: OK, so we have: Cuban, Oprah, Bloomberg, The Rock … and then there’s also Mark Zuckerberg.

Who else?

perry: Howard Schultz (the Starbucks guy) wants to do it, I think.

micah: Yeah.

clare.malone: No one knows who he is. NEXT.

For real though.

You gotta come in hot.

harry: I just said out loud, “Who is Howard Schultz?”

micah: Would you put Michelle Obama in this group?

perry: No.

She is not running.

Neither is Oprah.

clare.malone: Second that. Both counts.

micah: OK, anyone want to rank the celeb/business group in terms of how serious we should take them?

natesilver: I’m smart enough not to rank.

micah: Cuban, Oprah, Zuckerberg, Bloomberg, The Rock, Schultz.

harry: I don’t think Zuckerberg can go the distance, personally. But maybe that’s just because I don’t like Facebook.

clare.malone: I’m dumb enough to rank!

micah: (me too)

perry: Hold on. Shouldn’t all of those people just run in the Democratic primary? Like Trump did in the GOP primary. These people are all basically Democrats.

harry: Is The Rock a Democrat?

perry: I don’t know about him.

clare.malone: I think he’s been associated with both.

Y’all, this chat is wild and reflects what 2020 would be like.

micah: So Perry is right that if you can run in a major-party contest, that’s 100 percent the easier route. But we’re talking third-party bids.

natesilver: So should we rank them in terms of likelihood of running, likelihood of winning or likelihood of winning conditional on running?

micah: All three together, Nate. (We don’t actually have to rank them.)

clare.malone: For now, I think we can say that someone like Zuckerberg is thinking about running for president, likely as a Democrat. Someone like The Rock or Cuban is, in my book, more likely to be running as a third-party guy.

natesilver: 1) Rock, 2) Cuban, 3) Bloomberg, 4) Zuckerberg, 5) Oprah, 6) Schultz.

perry: The Rock is way ahead of all these people to me. Cuban second. I don’t think it’s worth ranking the rest. Bloomberg and Schultz have no chance as third-party candidates because the Democratic candidate will agree with them on the issues. Oprah and Michelle Obama should run in the Democratic primary, since they would have a huge advantage in that they would get massive black support.

micah: I ❤️ The Rock.


harry: I thought Nate wasn’t dumb enough to rank?


Zuckerberg is … not unlikely to run but also might be pretty bad at it.

micah: So, to begin to wrap, does this chat show that in order to take these names seriously, or some type of unity ticket seriously, you have to suspend disbelief too much? What’s our advice to readers in terms of processing all this chatter? And is that advice different for a unity ticket vs. a celebrity-driven third-party run?

clare.malone: Readers should take a celebrity ticket more seriously than a third-party unity ticket, IMO.

natesilver: They should also take scenarios in which the Republican Party splinters over Trump somewhat seriously.

harry: What we would need to see for a strong third-party bid is 1. Trump continues to be unpopular. 2. The Democratic candidate is either disliked or leaves open an ideological hole within the electorate. 3. The third-party candidate can either raise the money or media attention to compete with the major-party candidates.

perry: My general advice is that Kasich/Hickenlooper is the kind of unity ticket that people in the Beltway and the media (like me) tend to think is appealing to voters: moderate in tone, more economically conservative and socially liberal. I think there isn’t any evidence that voters want this kind of ticket and there is a lot of evidence (the rise of Sanders and Trump) that voters don’t want this kind of candidate. I do think a third-party candidate can do well. I really do. But I suspect it’s more of an outsider/celebrity than a bunch of old pols who are somehow trying to split the difference between the two existing parties.

clare.malone: I’d imagine the American people want this more than “The Johns”:

And now I’ll stop posting The Rock videos … but, man, imagine that video as a campaign ad!

natesilver: My final thought is that the chance of a “serious” third-party bid is badly overrated by conventional pundits, but perhaps slightly underrated by data-informed pundits/analysts/reporters. Also, what Perry said above about being wary of candidates who are lauded by the Beltway and looking more toward people who could really position themselves as outsiders.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.