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Could An Independent Candidate Succeed In 2016?

In this week’s politics Slack chat, we weigh the chances of a viable independent presidential candidate. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): We have a guilty-pleasure topic today: an independent presidential bid. A lot of people have been talking up the idea, and we’ll get into whether an independent run is logistically feasible and who would make a good independent candidate. But first, let’s dive into why people are so taken with the notion of a truly viable independent candidate. Is there something about the current political climate or modern politics generally that makes a successful independent bid more likely? (Define “successful” loosely.)

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Allow me to reel off a few reasons:

  1. Most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. If you look back at the last big third-party bid, in 1992, you see similar right direction/wrong track numbers.
  2. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two presumptive nominees, are extremely disliked. That’s somewhat similar to 1992, with the first George Bush and Bill Clinton, and to a lesser extent with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
  3. We have a major ideological split within the Republican Party. This reminds me of 1980, when some more liberal Republicans were unhappy with Reagan — the most conservative Republican nominee since 1964 and, IMO, probably the second most conservative nominee since Herbert Hoover in 1932. Reagan was also anti-abortion, which John Anderson, a Republican who ran as an independent in 1980, was not. You also saw major-party splits that presaged George Wallace’s independent run in 1968 and Strom Thurmond’s in 1948.
  4. A feeling that both candidates are the same. That is, the real need for an outsider. Now, this is interesting because Trump is kind of a third-party candidate within the Republican Party. But since some traditional Republicans feel displaced, they may get behind a third-party candidate. The idea that both candidates are the same was also in the air when Ralph Nader ran in 2000, and to some degree when Thurmond and Henry Wallace ran in 1948.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I feel like you’re missing No. 5 (although it somewhat contradicts No. 4): The degree of partisanship is higher than ever. In the abstract, if the parties are pulling farther and farther apart, eventually the rubber band snaps and some voters in the middle are left behind.

micah: For instance, from Pew Research:


farai (Farai Chideya, senior writer): Harry, 1948 was an interesting year because you had two different third-party candidacies. There was Henry Wallace, whose voters largely defected to Harry Truman in the late stages of the race, helping Truman win. But there was also Strom Thurmond. Both got 2.4 percent of the popular vote, but only Thurmond got electoral votes. Independent candidates who have a broad base of support spread evenly across the nation can have less of an effect on the Electoral College than regional candidates.

harry: And then you get someone like Ross Perot, who got nearly 20 percent of the national vote in 1992 and received 0 electoral votes.

farai: I mean, in some ways Trump is a bit of a Trojan horse — an independent who happens to be using the GOP as the equivalent of a shell corporation.

micah: Yeah, that seems right to me. And some of the factors Harry identified also help to explain Trump’s success.

OK, so do we believe this year is really more ripe for a third-party bid? Or is Farai right that Trump is basically an independent running on the GOP line? (I think Farai is right.)

harry: To me, this year pretty much meets all the criteria for at least a moderately successful third-party candidacy. That doesn’t mean it will happen, of course. A truly strong independent bid would have been more likely if Bernie Sanders were winning the Democratic nomination, because then Michael Bloomberg would have likely run.

natesilver: Sometimes I’ll be having a perfectly nice conversation with somebody and they’ll be like “So, what are Mike Bloomberg’s chances of becoming president?” His set of attitudes and policy positions are overrepresented among cultural and political elites, so the media tends to overstate how viable he might be. In some ways, Trump is a much better fit for independent voters. From an article I wrote in January:


micah: In a Trump vs. Clinton general election, wouldn’t the most logical independent candidate or third-party candidate look like — dare I speak his name — Ted Cruz? [Editor’s note: Right after we finished this chat, Cruz told reporters in Washington that he had “no interest” in a third-party bid.]

harry: Just to be clear, we already have a bunch of third parties running: candidates from the Green Party and Libertarian Party, for example. Don’t be surprised if Gary Johnson (if he becomes the nominee) gets a higher percentage of the vote than the Libertarian candidate typically does.

natesilver: Yeah, there’s some question about what a token-ish #NeverTrump independent candidate would get you that Gary Johnson wouldn’t. Libertarians already have ballot access in 30-something states.

micah: So you think it makes more sense for #NeverTrump to rally with Johnson rather than run a movement conservative like #PaulRyan?

natesilver: Can you get a movement conservative as Johnson’s VP? Libertarians haven’t held their convention yet. Obviously, it’s different if you have a Mitt Romney run, or something.

micah: Rubio.

harry: The dream shall never die.

natesilver: RU-BEE-OH! RU-BEE-OH!

micah: Really, though — none of this is going to happen, but in terms of the political space left unfilled in a Trump vs. Clinton election, I think Romney < Rubio < Cruz (Nate’s Rubio adoration notwithstanding). But I’m not sure whether #NeverTrump should go with Johnson or a Cruz-like candidate — what’s more effective if your goal is stopping Trump?

natesilver: I’m just saying that you have to consider Johnson in your VORC (value over replacement candidate) calculation. If the alternative is some backbench U.S. representative or something, he’s not going to get very many votes that Johnson wouldn’t, you might not have a lot of enthusiasm for petitions to get him on the ballot, and the efforts might be better spent getting Libertarians on the ballot in more states. If it’s Romney or someone with a national profile, that’s way different.

harry: Johnson got 1 percent of the vote in 2012 without much of a yearning for an outsider.

farai: When you have third-party and independent candidates, there’s a vast difference between voters who make judgments purely based on platforms/ideas and ones who do viability math. Some possible Ralph Nader voters in 2000 abandoned his candidacy when they felt it might jeopardize the Democratic Party’s chances; same with Henry Wallace, the Progressive, in 1948. So, circling back to what Harry said about there being lots of third parties already, the issues-based voters may have already aligned with the third parties, but the two-party system makes picking a third party extremely difficult for people who care about viability and likelihood of winning. That’s very different from multiparty democracies in much of the world, and their coalition governments.

harry: Well, there are multiple reasons third/independent candidacies fail in the U.S. One of those is our first-past-the-post or plurality voting system.

natesilver: What’s different this year is that there are some voters, especially movement conservative Republicans, who really might consider their cause better off if Trump loses than if he wins, but who also get a chill in their spine at the thought of having to vote for Clinton. It’s not a large share of the population. It might be 2 or 3 percent or something. But that could make a difference if the election tightens.

farai: Nate, do you think anyone who that demographic would vote for could actually mount a campaign this late in the game?

natesilver: It’s hard to guess. If Trump had wrapped up the nomination one month sooner, it would have been more likely. If he hadn’t wrapped it up until June, it would have been less likely. We’re on the precipice, and my hunch is that it ultimately won’t pan out, but I really have no idea.

micah: So we talked a bit about the current conditions that are favorable to an independent bid. What’s working against such a run?

harry: Money, for one. It takes a lot of money to run for president. President Obama spent over $700 million in 2012, and Romney spent about $450 million.

farai: Here are some charts from the Brookings Institution that show the filing deadlines to get on the ballot in each state, and what’s required in each.


It’s hard to imagine who can mount a run with the time we have left. Someone like Bloomberg who’s extremely wealthy could probably assemble a viable machine, but the sheer mechanics of running a campaign are just daunting.

natesilver: Yeah, the filing deadline in Texas has already passed, and you’d have to sue to try to get ballot access. Other deadlines are coming up pretty soon. But mainly … such a bid is quite unlikely to be successful.

farai: Exactly. Most voters are pragmatic about the choices offered and base their vote, at least in part, on a candidate’s chance of winning.

micah: So besides the logistical stuff, isn’t it true that voters just aren’t that into it?

natesilver: Not exactly. It also has to do with the dynamics of the Electoral College and winner-take-all elections.

farai: It’s always worth remembering we have one version of democracy, even of American democracy. We’d be different if fusion voting were national, as it was in the past. And certainly if we had multiparty democracy, we’d see a broader range of political parties.

But the workings of the Electoral College are everything in the end, and a third-party candidate winning any electoral votes has tended to mean having a successful hyper-regional campaign. So from 1940 until today, the only two third-party candidates to win electoral votes were segregationists Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968). Thurmond won about 2.4 percent of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes, and Wallace won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes.

natesilver: Unless a third-party candidate is drawing exactly evenly from the two party bases, he tends to be a spoiler. Say the election starts out Clinton 52 percent, Trump 48 percent. A third-party candidate takes 10 percent from Trump and 5 percent from Clinton. That winds up being Clinton 47, Trump 38, third party 15, which will look like a Clinton landslide.

But even if the third-party candidate gets 35 percent of the vote or something, they’ll tend to finish second in a lot of places — second behind Clinton in blue states, and second behind Trump in red states.

harry: That is, as Farai said, unless they are a regional candidate. That’s why Thurmond and George Wallace were bigger players — at least in terms of the electoral college — than say Anderson and Henry Wallace.

But how about this question: Who were the voters most opposed to Trump in the Republican primary? Very conservative voters and well-educated moderates. What type of candidate would appeal to those constituencies? And could that person possibly reach out to the #bernieorbust folks as well?

natesilver: Harry, that’s part of why I’m saying Gary Johnson could do relatively well, unless you have someone else with real star power. The well-educated moderates will vote for Johnson, and a few Bernie types might. Not sure the religious conservatives would, but he’s at least there as a relatively harmless protest vote.

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micah: OK, let’s wrap this up — anything else we want to cover?

harry: One thing to watch out for is the cumulative share of the vote earned by third-party candidates. It could be that Johnson takes 4 percent, Jill Stein gets 1 percent, the Constitution Party gets 0.3 percent, etc. That is, the third-party candidates get more support than usual, but it’s spread over a few different candidates.

natesilver: You could also have some undervoting — people who skip the presidential race and just vote for Senate, etc., instead. This gets a little tricky from a polling standpoint and may be one reason we see differences in the polls later this year. Pollsters tend to “push” voters pretty hard toward picking one of the major-party choices. If an above-average number will vote third party, or undervote, or write someone in, or just stay home, that pushing might not be a good idea.

farai: Also, any parties that get 5 percent in a presidential election then get federal matching funds in the next election. So if Johnson could break that threshold for the Libertarians, that could greatly improve their chances in the future.

harry: That’s true. Although the Reform Party getting federal funding (as a result of Perot’s 8 percent showing in 1996) didn’t exactly help Pat Buchanan in 2000.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.


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