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How Might Third Parties Affect the Presidential Race?

Looking at an upcoming presidential race featuring Joe Biden and Donald Trump, some voters may be saying: "Oh God please, not those two again," and may start looking at third-party candidates. The number of people looking for an alternative could be larger than normal in 2024. How might that affect the race?

The list of third-party candidates from which the double haters can choose may be exceptionally long next year. Anti-vaxxers will have Robert Kennedy Jr. available. Leftists will have Cornel West. Then there will be whoever the No Labels group, Green Party, and Libertarian Party put up. In addition, there are the candidates of truly minor parties, like the Constitution Party and dozens of even smaller parties. It is a veritable cornucopia for protest voters, most of whom will be very angry if either Biden or Trump is the winner, which is practically guaranteed (unless one of them is in jail or dead).

Now, don't misunderstand our pooh-poohing of these microparties. They have no chance of beating either of the 800-pound gorillas, it is true, but they could dramatically affect the election outcome by drawing more from one of the big parties than the other. Two recent polls have shown Kennedy pulls more support from Trump than from Biden, probably due to anti-vaxxers who don't like Trump for some reason. Kennedy is also being funded largely by Republican donors. That is a sign that they think his candidacy will hurt Biden, but they could be wrong.

In 2016, the third-party vote was 6.1%, the most this century. Second highest was 2000, with 3.8%. The other years it was under 2%. What do 2000 and 2016 have in common? Gotta think about that.

One factor to keep in mind is that the popular vote doesn't actually matter. It's not about who gets the most votes. It's about who wins Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball has done the math to see what percentage of the vote third parties have averaged 2000-2020 state by state:

State 2000 2004 2008 2012 2016 2020 Average
Utah 6.8% 2.5% 3.7% 2.8% 27.8% 5.4% 8.2%
Alaska 13.7% 3.4% 2.7% 4.4% 12.2% 4.4% 6.8%
Vermont 8.7% 2.3% 2.1% 2.5% 13.1% 3.2% 5.3%
Idaho 5.2% 1.4% 2.9% 3.5% 13.3% 3.4% 4.9%
Montana 8.2% 2.4% 3.4% 3.0% 8.9% 2.5% 4.7%
Oregon 6.5% 1.5% 2.9% 3.6% 10.8% 3.2% 4.7%
Washington 5.3% 1.6% 2.4% 3.2% 10.6% 3.3% 4.4%
Wyoming 4.5% 2.1% 2.7% 3.5% 10.0% 3.5% 4.4%
North Dakota 6.3% 1.6% 2.3% 3.0% 9.8% 3.1% 4.4%
New Mexico 4.2% 1.1% 1.3% 4.2% 11.7% 2.2% 4.1%
NATIONAL 3.8% 1.0% 1.5% 1.8% 6.1% 1.9% 2.7%

Take a look at this table. Do you see anything noteworthy about it? Like, except for Vermont, all the states are west of the Mississippi. And even more interesting, none of them are remotely swing states. The top state, Utah, got that ranking largely due to Evan McMullin's run in 2016, but that was basically due to LDS Church members being disgusted with Donald Trump. If McMullin runs again in 2024, it could happen again, otherwise probably not.

As to the states where third parties do the worst, the list is headed by Mississippi (1.3%), North Carolina (1.5%), Oklahoma (1.6%), Alabama (1.6%), Florida (1.7%), Georgia (1.9%), Tennessee (1.9%), South Carolina (2.0%), Louisiana (2.0%), and Texas (2.0%). So basically the Confederacy plus Oklahoma.

What about the swing states? Here the top of the list is Nevada (3.2%), Arizona (3.0%), Wisconsin (2.7%), Michigan (2.4%), Pennsylvania (2.0%), Georgia (1.9%), and North Carolina (1.5%). So they are somewhat in the middle. But in a close election, 2-3% could tip the scales if the third-party candidates pull votes much more of one of the big parties than the other. Also, voters in the swing states well know that their vote could determine the presidency, so they are less inclined to waste it than voters in, say, Idaho, where everyone knows which party is going to win the state, no matter what.

Regional dynamics can also play a role. Would Kennedy do well in Arizona, Wisconsin or Georgia? The Kennedys aren't closely associated with any of them. Nor is Cornel West. We don't know about the other major minor-party candidates yet. But keep in mind when you see polls with third-party candidates doing well, ask about Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, not national numbers. (V)

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