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The States That Love (And Hate) Third-Party Candidates

One possible result of the bizarre year we’re having in American politics — particularly the low popularity ratings of the two major candidates — is that third parties may benefit.

Polls this year show slight evidence that third-party candidates might have a stronger showing than usual. An ABC News/Washington Post poll on June 26 revealed that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein received about 7 and 3 percent support, respectively, from voters presented with their names as alternatives. Although the winner-take-all nature of most states in the Electoral College makes it very difficult for third parties to win the White House, third-party candidates emerge periodically, and sometimes they may even influence the election outcome in a spoiler role.

But it won’t happen everywhere, and political geography is likely to play an outsize role in determining where outsiders will flourish. Utah, for example, generally a Republican stronghold, looks like it might be competitive, and Johnson is polling well there.

Where else might we expect Johnson — or Stein — to do well? Are there some states that gravitate toward third-party candidates? Looking at four elections and three presidential candidates from the past 40 years, it seems that the answer to this question is a qualified “yes.”

ANDERSON (1980) PEROT (1992) PEROT (1996) NADER (2000)*
Top 5 states Massachusetts Maine Maine Alaska
Vermont Alaska Montana Vermont
Rhode Island Utah Idaho Massachusetts
New Hampshire Idaho Wyoming Rhode Island
Connecticut Kansas North Dakota Montana
Bottom 5 states Alabama Mississippi South Carolina Georgia**
Mississippi Tennessee Tennessee Mississippi
South Carolina Arkansas New Mexico Indiana**
Louisiana Alabama Mississippi Tennessee
Tennessee South Carolina Alabama Alabama
Where outsiders have fared the best and the worst

Excludes Washington D.C.

* Bottom 5 states only includes states where Nader was on the ballot or eligible as a write-in candidate.

** Was on ballot as write in candidate only

Source: the american presidency project

In 1980, John Anderson, a disaffected moderate Republican, left the party to run as an independent against incumbent Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. Billionaire H. Ross Perot ran twice in the 1990s, both times depriving Bill Clinton of a popular vote majority. Perot’s ideology is perhaps the most challenging to pin down, as he had never been in politics before and held a variety of policy positions, but his support base has been described as “radical centrist” — people who were conservative economically but socially moderate, and dissatisfied with the two-party system. Ralph Nader, who made his name as a consumer advocate in the 1960s, ran on the left-wing Green Party ticket, emphasizing environmental issues and systemic reform.

Where did these outsider candidates get the most love? For Anderson and Nader, it was the Northeast. It’s possible that this is related to ideology rather than an affinity for outsiders: in 1980, the two parties had begun the process of ideological sorting, with liberal Republicans (of the kind that came from Northeastern states such as Connecticut) becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the conservative movement. By 2000, this area was pretty solidly Democratic, and the liberal values associated with this change might have lent themselves to Nader support. However, there are other states that fall into this category, such as New York, that weren’t exceptionally supportive of either third-party candidate.

Perot’s support base was a bit different, with Maine, Alaska and the interior West turning out for the quirky Texan. (Texas gave Perot 22 percent of the vote in 1992, slightly more than the nation overall.) Reaching back 100 years in history, Perot’s top states actually look a bit like the ones that were won by Populist candidate James Weaver in 1892.

Regional generalizations aside, two states that stand out in their support for third-party types are Alaska and Maine. Perot almost won Maine in 1992, and Alaska, the same state that gave us Gov. Sarah Palin, was also Nader’s top state. It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t confined to presidential elections, either: Maine has an independent senator (who caucuses with the Democrats) and Alaska has an independent governor. Political culture is challenging to measure, but both states have cultures that prize independence.

Where do third-party candidates fare the worst? The South. Almost all of the states in the bottom five are Southern. There may be idiosyncratic reasons for this in each contest: Carter and Clinton were both from the South, Reagan made specific appeals to the South as part of the Republican Southern strategy, and Southern voters in 2000 were hardly the ideal audience for Nader’s leftist message. Scholars have long noted the South’s one-party tradition — but perhaps an aversion to third-party movements is part of this, too. (That is, unless they are explicitly Southern third parties, such as George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968 or Strom Thurmond’s States’ Rights party in 1948.)

It’s possible that the Trump campaign is hoping to draw on the kind of anti-party appeal that usually drives third-party support. But the good news for outsiders on the right is that the places where they might expect to do well, such as Kansas or Idaho, have not been terribly friendly to Trump.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”