It can’t be said too much that 2016 is the year that breaks all the rules. Another rule that might be fractured this year is the one that says that third parties never win anything. The old saw that a vote for a third party is a wasted vote could be put to the test with the possibility that two third party candidates could win electoral votes in two different states.
Many of us remember the third party candidacy of Ross Perot in the 1990s. Perot mounted an insurgent campaign that was successful… by third party terms. Perot won 18 percent of the vote in 1992, but didn’t win any states or electoral votes. To find the last time that a third party candidate won electoral votes, we must look back to 1968 when George Wallace and Curtis LeMay won five states and 46 electoral votes under the banner of the American Independent Party.
This year, polling shows that two third party candidates are threatening to take safe states from the major parties. One blue state and one red state may be in play by candidates who could be considered a “favorite son.” This scenario is made possible by the overwhelming unpopularity of both major party candidates.
The FiveThirtyEight blog recently speculated that Libertarian Gary Johnson could eke out a win in his home state of New Mexico. The Real Clear Politics average for New Mexico showed a surge for Johnson in late September after the first presidential debate. He reached a high of 24 percent, seven points away from Donald Trump and 11 points behind Hillary Clinton, in an Albuquerque Journal poll taken between September 28 and October 1. He has since slipped to 14 percent following his “Aleppo moments,” but could possibly rebound if Donald Trump has another difficult week. Hillary is currently favored to win New Mexico.
Independent Evan McMullin is another surging third party candidate. McMullin only began his campaign in August and appeared in his first national poll on September 28. McMullin debuted in the Public Policy poll at two percent, higher than Jill Stein’s one percent, but behind Gary Johnson’s six percent. McMullin’s showing was impressive for an unknown candidate whose campaign was only two months old.
McMullin’s best chance for an electoral victory is in his home state of Utah, which is normally a deep red state, but which is also particularly unfriendly to Donald Trump. Trump finished third in the caucuses there last spring behind Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Trump’s difficulties in the deeply religious and conservative state run deeper than in other states because of Trump’s lifestyle as well as his policies.
Deseret News opinion writer Michael Worley laid out the case for McMullin in September 8 editorial. The three points he cited were McMullin’s honesty, his social conservatism and Trump’s troubling record on religious freedom. The LDS church, which is normally politically neutral, issued a statement denouncing Trump’s proposed Muslim ban on the basis of religious freedom.
Because Utah is presumed to be a safe red state, polling is sparse. A June Salt Lake Tribune poll showed Trump and Clinton virtually tied at 29-26 percent with Gary Johnson at 16 percent. McMullin debuted in a Public Policy poll on August 23 at nine percent. Trump had surged to 39 percent, Clinton held steady at 24 and Gary Johnson dropped to 12 percent.
The most recent Utah poll is a Dan Jones and Associates poll reported in the Salt Lake Tribune on September 25. Donald Trump still led Hillary Clinton, but the margin was reduced to nine points. At 34 percent, Trump’s lead was due to the crowded field. Clinton maintained 25 percent and Johnson and McMullin were in a statistical tie at 13 and 12 percent respectively. Eight percent remained undecided.
A McMullin win in Utah would also require a variety of favorable factors. Trump’s lead could be reduced, perhaps after a poor debate performance or as a result of a scandal. Gary Johnson’s difficulties might also lead third party voters to switch their votes to McMullin. An interview on the web show of former Libertarian candidate Austin Petersen hints at crossover appeal.
McMullin also has a secret weapon. Deseret News reported that McMullin is fundraising from Mitt Romney’s list of 2012 supporters. If McMullin proves viable, an endorsement by Mitt Romney, one of the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans, could put him over the top in Utah.
Even though Johnson and McMullin may only win one state, it could change the shape of the race. FiveThirtyEight ran simulations that showed that the loss of New Mexico’s five electoral votes could prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the 270 electoral votes necessary to become president. The same could be true if Donald Trump lost Utah’s six votes in a close race.
In the case of deadlock, the House of Representatives would decide the next president. The House would choose from the top three candidates by electoral vote. Since Utah has one more electoral vote than New Mexico, McMullin would displace Johnson in a deadlock if both win their home states. Each state delegation in the House of Representatives would receive one vote. Since the House will almost certainly be controlled by Republicans, the choice would be between the unpopular Trump and the unknown McMullin.
The odds are still long against a third party candidate carrying a state, let alone becoming president. FiveThirtyEight calculated that the probability of a Johnson victory in New Mexico and that state deciding the election occurring together would be 0.15 percent, almost a million to one shot.
It may be an interesting election.