Spoiler alert: Could a third-party candidate help Trump win in 2020?

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 104 days until the Iowa caucuses and 378 days until the 2020 election.

President Trump has happily waded into the intraparty feud between Hillary Clinton and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, not just to criticize his 2016 opponent but to defend the honor of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate blamed by many Democrats for Clinton’s defeat in 2016. With Election Day just over a year away, the topic of potential third-party spoilers entering the race has been raised.

Last week, Clinton said that Russia was “also going to do third-party again” and suggested without specific evidence that it was grooming Gabbard for that role, a charge Gabbard vociferously disputed, to the point of challenging Clinton to enter the primary and challenge her directly. Gabbard told CNN in August that she had ruled out a third-party bid.

Clinton also attacked Stein, saying, “She’s a Russian asset — I mean, totally. They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate. So I don’t know who it’s going to be, but I will guarantee you they will have a vigorous third-party challenge in the key states that they most needed.”

“Crooked Hillary Clinton just called the respected environmentalist and Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, a ‘Russian Asset,’” wrote Trump in a tweet over the weekend. “They need a Green Party more than ever after looking at the Democrats disastrous environmental program!”

Because Stein’s vote total was higher than Trump’s margin of victory in some critical Midwestern swing states, she has been labeled as a key to Republican victory. But the data doesn’t back up the supposition that all of Stein’s voters would have gone for Clinton: They could have stayed home, opted not to vote for president or switched their vote to a different third-party candidate or even Trump.

From left: Tulsi Gabbard, Donald Trump, Jill Stein and Ross Perot (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Shutterstock)

Third parties had a strong overall showing in the 2016 election. Stein, Libertarian Gary Johnson and independent candidate Evan McMullin combined for over 5 percent of the vote, compared with just 1.5 percent for the third-party candidates in 2012. That opened the door for Trump to win with just 46.1 percent of the popular vote. Third-party voters were still a small fraction compared with the number of eligible voters who didn’t show up, a total that was roughly 100 million in the last presidential election.

One of the key reasons for the bump in third-party voting in 2016 was that Trump and Clinton were what Gallup described as “historically unpopular” by Election Day. They were both underwater in popularity, with Clinton at 52 percent disapproval and Trump even deeper at 61 percent disapproval. It’s a sharp contrast to eight years prior, when both Barack Obama and John McCain had approval ratings in the low 60s.

The electoral system in the United States is not kind to third-party candidates. Ross Perot, the Reform Party’s 1992 nominee, had the most success of any recent non-establishment candidate by far, winning 19 percent of the popular vote. But he didn’t earn a single electoral vote, coming closest in Maine, where he fell by 8 points to eventual winner Bill Clinton.

Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate in 2000, received 97,000 votes in Florida, which went to Republican George W. Bush by a margin of just over 500 and gave him the election. Nader has sought to deflect the charge of being a spoiler in the race, and it’s unreasonable to assume that all of his votes would have gone to Democrat Al Gore instead, but a detailed statistical analysis supports the inference that without him on the ballot, the election would have turned out differently.

Could there be a major third-party candidate in 2020? Names have been floated. In January, billionaire Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz said he was exploring a third-party run, believing there was an opening for a “centrist independent.” Schultz’s “campaign” — he never officially launched, although he hired advisers and did a full media tour — was a disaster: He complained that “billionaire” had become an insult, preferring the terms “person of wealth” or “person of means.” CNN gave him a primetime town hall to share his platform, but he didn’t have much of one, preferring to promote the importance of “leadership” and “results” over any actual policiesOne poll found him underwater in terms of approval among even independent voters, along with Republicans and Democrats — with just 4 percent total approval across the three groups.

In September, he announced he was no longer considering a bid, blaming the “extreme voices [that] currently dominate the national dialogue, often with a vitriol that crowds out and discourages thoughtful discussions,” and citing the danger of throwing the election to Trump by peeling moderate voters away from the Democrat.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered a third-party run in 2016 because of concerns that the race could come down to Trump against Bernie Sanders. Last week, CNBC reported that Bloomberg was considering entering the Democratic primary to head off a victory by Elizabeth Warren. Both Warren and Sanders have proposed wealth taxes that would affect billionaires like Bloomberg, with an estimated fortune of $51 billion.

One billionaire who has explicitly ruled out a third-party run is Tom Steyer, who has spent millions of his own fortune to qualify for Democratic debates. When asked in August if he would consider a third-party run were he to fall short in the primary, Steyer said, “Ralph Nader? Jill Stein? Not interested. Not in a million years,” later adding, “I will never do that. Good grief. I’m a Democrat.”

It also seems that former Ohio Gov. John Kasich will abstain from a third-party run that could potentially damage Trump. Last November, Kasich said, “I think for the first time there is a legitimate chance for a third-party candidate because you have Republicans on the extreme and Democrats on the extreme. There is a big, wide open space in the middle. So all my options are on the table.” But in May, Kasich said there was “no path” to the White House for him and that he wasn’t interested in running a purely symbolic campaign.

While there’s no guarantee there will be a major third-party candidate, you can be sure there will be a number of names floated as potential contenders, particularly if a progressive like Sanders or Warren emerges as a likely primary winner, troubling the establishment and Democratic fundraisers on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.

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