Will the Greens and Libertarians Affect the 2020 Election?

Green party nominee Jill Stein speaks during a campaign rally in New York on October 12, 2016. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the remembered hellscape of November 9, 2016, when Americans stayed up late or woke up early to confront the reality of President-elect Donald J. Trump, those who cast a “protest” vote for minor-party candidates have a special, demonic place reserved for them. It was in that spirit that a season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story TV show revolved around a Michigan liberal (played by Sarah Paulson) who helped blow things up with a surreptitious vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, as she finally confessed to her incredulous wife:

“When I got into the booth, I couldn’t do it. I tried, you know that I did!” she says, pleading with her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill). “But as much as I hate him, I didn’t trust her!” She goes on, “Come on, you can’t blame me! She (Clinton) didn’t campaign enough in the battleground states! She went to Arizona, for God’s sake.”

Like those who voted for an earlier Green candidate, Ralph Nader, in 2000, Stein voters, and Clinton-hating progressives who tossed a vote to Libertarian Gary Johnson, will always get far more blame for the election outcome than they objectively deserve. The obvious reason is that just about any change in voting patterns can be given outsize importance in crazy-close elections (this one was famously decided by 77,000 votes in three states). As with most lurid theories of betrayal, there’s a kernel of truth to this one, as the Guardian noted on The Day After:

In Michigan, where the election was so close that the Associated Press still hasn’t called the result [AP did call it later, of course], Trump is ahead by about 12,000 votes. That’s significantly less than the 242,867 votes that went to third-party candidates in Michigan. It’s a similar story elsewhere: third-party candidates won more total votes than the Trump’s margin of victory in Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. Without those states, Trump would not have won the presidency.

Fury at protest voters has spilled over into the 2020 Democratic race, exacerbated by data showing that 4.5 percent of Bernie Sanders primary voters pulled the lever for Stein and another 3.2 percent went for Johnson in November 2016 (perhaps more to the point, 12 percent of them voted for Trump, but that’s a different story). Some Democrats still fear defections by “Bernie or Bust” voters in this cycle. So as the general election draws nigh, you can expect renewed attention to what’s going on in the minor parties and how they might (or might not) take advantage of major-party divisions.

The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s wrong to think of all, or even most, minor-party voters as casting protest votes against particular Democratic or Republican nominees. Yes, they are almost all by definition protesting the major-party duopoly, but voters like that and outlets for them have existed throughout American history. The Libertarians have been running presidential candidates since 1971; the Greens since 1996. There are similar parties in many other countries. The idea that the availability of Stein and Johnson as ballot options swung the election to Trump is not empirically very solid, particularly since former Republican Johnson got roughly three times as many votes as his Green rival and ran on a platform most would deem closer to that of the GOP than to that of the Democrats. For that matter, conservative independent Evan McMullin won nearly half as many votes as Stein. Preelection polls that did and did not include Johnson and Stein gave Clinton about the same three-points-and-change lead. Polls also (as is often the case with minor-party candidates) significantly overestimated the Johnson and Stein vote. For every Sarah Paulson who entered the voting booth and tilted toward Stein, there were probably two voters who tilted away from her at the last minute.

Having said all that, in 2016 Stein and Johnson both got a lot of votes. Johnson (and running mate William Weld), who was on the ballot in all 50 states, won nearly 4.5 million votes; only once (four years earlier, with Johnson as the nominee) had the Libertarians topped 1 million votes. Stein and Ajamu Baraka, on the ballot in 45 states, didn’t match Nader’s enormous 2000 vote, but with around one percent of the total, they beat the previous three Green presidential tickets combined. So even if Democrats are wrong about Stein and/or Johnson giving us President Trump, their parties bear watching in 2020, where a different configuration of forces may make them significant.

Interestingly enough, both Libertarians and Greens seem to be having a bit of a purist moment as they prepare for 2020. Libertarians have probably benefited electorally from their recent habit of running prominent ex-Republican elected officials for president (former New Mexico governor Johnson the last two times, former congressman Bob Barr in 2008, and former and future congressman Ron Paul in 1988). But a lot of Libertarian activists aren’t happy about the ideological compromises that has involved. Here’s Reason’s Matt Welch discussing an early presidential-candidate forum he moderated last month:

“We aren’t Republican light; we’re not Democrat light,” said [Kim] Ruff, an Arizona-based manufacturer who would go on to win that evening’s informal post-debate straw poll, eight to five ([Arvin] Vohra) to four ([Adam] Kokesh) to one apiece for [Max] Abramson and [Dan] Behrman. “We’re advocates of full, unencumbered liberty. And that means taking positions that make the public squeamish. I would never do black tar heroin, but I’m not going to stop you from doing it, because what you do with your life is your business.”

What the candidates were alluding to is the buzz about Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who recently left the Republican Party (right before a political lynch mob might have ejected him for endorsing a Trump impeachment). For the moment, he is running for reelection, but that could change, as National Interest reported last month:

In the few days since leaving the GOP, he’s talked about “room for a third party” and refused to rule out running for president. But sources close to Amash and the Libertarian Party deny that a presidential run is in the works — although the door is still open. For the time being, the Libertarian-leaning representative is looking to build a fiscally conservative, pro-restraint coalition across party lines.

The 2020 Libertarian Party convention is scheduled for May of next year (with state gatherings to select delegates held earlier), so Amash doesn’t have a lot of time to decide on a path. Gary Johnson has ruled out another run. But the announced candidates seem to be stressing their radicalism to distinguish themselves from potential ex-GOP interlopers like Amash. Candidate Dan Behrman’s motto is “Taxation Is Theft.” Adam Kokesh’s platform features this plank:

When elected, I will swear in, walk to the White House, and sign one executive order. This executive order will lay out the process for dissolving the federal government in a peaceful, orderly manner. With it, I will be resigning as President to become “Custodian of the Federal Government.” 

I don’t believe Amash would endorse that idea.

The Greens aren’t worried about Democrats or ex-Democrats appropriating their ballot line but are concerned about appropriation of their ideas, as Emily Atkin explained earlier this year:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the wunderkind congresswoman from New York, has been getting most of the credit for the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to fight global warming that has become increasingly popular among Democrats. But Howie Hawkins wants to set the record straight. “A lot of people think AOC thought it up,” he told me by phone Wednesday. “But I’m the original Green New Dealer.”

Hawkins started talking about a Green New Deal as a New York gubernatorial candidate for the Greens in 2010. He’s now running for president, and he stresses that his and his party’s version is more serious than the Democrats’, mostly because it involves a socialist transformation of the U.S. economy:

The two plans have the same goal of 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2030, and they both call for universal health care and a federal job guarantee. But the Green Party’s plan calls for single-payer Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and “democratically run, publicly owned utilities.” To pay for it, the Greens call for major progressive tax and financial reform, including a 90 percent tax on bonuses for bailed-out bankers, and a reduction in military spending by 50 percent.

Hawkins is running for president, and Jill Stein is not; another interesting Green presidential aspirant, Dario Hunter, describes himself as a “black, gay, Jewish son of a Persian immigrant.” He’s a rabbi and a local school-board member and also supports a “REAL Green New Deal,” among other intensely progressive priorities.

The 2020 context for these minor parties set by the major parties is, of course, very important to their relative appeal. Republicans are far more united behind Donald Trump than they were in 2016. You’d have to figure a self-consciously progressive Democratic nominee (Sanders or Warren, most notably) would take some of the oxygen away from the Greens. What is less clear is whether a nominee like Biden would drive voters to a Hawkins or a Hunter, or whether the vast ideological and psychological gulf between Trump and the entire Democratic field will induce unprecedented solidarity, even if the primaries turn out to be more fractious than they were in 2016.

The one thing we know for sure is that no one is going to take any particular outcome for granted after what happened in the Trump-Clinton race. The number of protest votes could drop significantly, even as turnout goes up. Dedicated supporters of the Libertarian and Green platforms will stay with their party, though even among true believers, those who are horrified by one of the major-party candidates more than the other may be tempted to “make their votes count” in 2020 to avoid a horror-show aftermath.