Even though Donald Trump is one of the least popular major party Presidential candidates in American history, a lot of people are still considering voting third party, probably because Hillary Clinton is also quite unpopular. I have some friends in that camp, people who can see that Trump is manifestly unfit to be President, but whose politics are just too different from Clinton’s for them to feel comfortable voting for her. But if the idea of Trump having the power to launch nuclear strikes genuinely bothers you, voting third party is a really bad idea, because in our political system these votes virtually guarantee that your least-preferred candidate will reap the benefits.
The basis for the claim here is pretty simple. Imagine there are three candidates running, and your order of preference for these candidates looks like this:
- Alice Good
- Bob Meh
- Carol Bad
In other words, you really want Alice to win, and you’d really like Carol to lose. We don’t know how you feel about Bob—maybe he’s an uninspiring technocrat, maybe he’s a corrupt tool of the system—but either way he’s better than Carol. If Alice has a shot at winning, this is an easy election; you just vote for Alice. But if Alice has no chance—in other words, if she’s like nearly every third party candidate in American history—then voting for her basically just makes it easier for Carol to win.
This quickly becomes obvious if you think about it numerically. Say there are 100 voters, 46 for Carol, 45 for Bob, and 9 for Alice—and the Alice voters all have the order of preference above. If they vote for Alice, Carol wins, netting them the worst possible outcome. If they compromise and vote for Bob, Bob wins, and they get a better outcome. And crucially, these are the only two possible outcomes: Either you get Carol, or you get Bob. There is no scenario in which Alice wins. It’s as though you’ve got an election between Bob and Carol, but instead of going to the polls, a lot of people who prefer Bob go watch a basketball game. Obviously this will help Carol, because Alice is essentially LeBron James—much more fun to support than Bob, but not capable of winning this election.
In short, voting for a third party candidate who cannot win inevitably ensures that your least-preferred candidate has a better shot at winning, because you would otherwise have distributed your vote to your second-most preferred candidate. Now, there are a few factors that could sway the math a little: If Alice and Bob have pretty even chances of winning, or if you dislike Bob and Carol equally, then a vote for Alice could still make sense. But in this election neither factor applies.
Third party candidates never win
The best performance by a third party candidate in U.S. history is probably Teddy Roosevelt’s in 1912, when he ran with the idiosyncratic Bull Moose party. He managed to beat the Republican candidate, William Howard Taft, but that was just good enough for him to lose to Woodrow Wilson by 14 percentage points and 347 electoral votes. Together he and Taft got just over 50% of the vote, but because they split it between them, Wilson won, even though he was in the Carol Position for a pretty large number of Americans. And this was, again, the best a third party candidate ever did.1
In that situation, voters really did have to deal with a difficult decision, since Taft and Teddy each had a strong claim to be the most electable candidate. But for most of American history, the choice has been pretty easy, because third party candidates don’t even remotely stand a chance. There have been 57 Presidential elections in U.S. history; third party candidates have won none. Most of the time third party candidates don’t earn any electoral votes; the last time it happened was 1968, when George Wallace got 46 (145 shy of the guy who came in second).2
Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will not buck this trend. A few weeks ago when Trump seemed doomed, he was polling at about 36%; Johnson is currently at about 9%, and Stein has never been as high as 5%. FiveThirtyEight gives Johnson a <0.1% chance of winning the election; Stein is not even on the chart. When a race gets close, the calculus involved in the Alice/Bob/Carol scenario gets very complicated; you have to balance likelihood against preference, and it’s not clear how you should weight either. But in most U.S. Presidential elections, the race is not close, and it definitely isn’t in this one.
Trump can lose and still win
In an election where no candidate hits a majority of the electoral votes (270 these days), the House of Representatives chooses the President from the existing pool of candidates. The House is currently Republican, and has shown no courage or even really desire when it comes to breaking with Trump. And a third-party candidate wouldn’t have to do that well to create a scenario like this. This map shows an example:
This is basically the 2012 map, but Trump has picked off Florida and Ohio, which are currently fairly close. Johnson has won Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, three states where he’s doing pretty well at the moment. And as a result, Clinton falls just shy of 270 electoral votes, meaning the whole thing goes to the House, and Trump is our next President. This is not an especially likely scenario, since the best Johnson is doing in any of those states (as of this writing) is about 18% in New Mexico. It is also true that some states are more secure than others for Clinton, so if you live near enough people who do the right thing, your inaction will cause less harm. But the general point is that good electoral performance by Johnson or Stein—the purpose of voting for them—has a little extra capacity to help Trump become President, whether or not it gets them remotely closer to winning the election.
What about other reasons to vote third party?
My impression based on the people I know who are enthusiastic about Johnson or Stein is that they are well aware that neither candidate will win. Instead, they cite a bunch of other reasons to vote third party. These are often pretty compelling on their own merits: It’s important to qualify for federal matching funds.3 It’s also important to change the political discourse and introduce new ideas—I would consider Bernie Sanders’s primary run a major success for progressive politics even though he didn’t get the nomination, just because of how it changed the party’s discourse and policies. The question is whether these considerations outweigh the risks involved in giving Trump an easier path to the White House. I say no, because I believe that the ethics of voting are almost entirely about outcomes.
In other words, I think the only ethical consideration you should make when you vote (assuming the election is more or less free and fair, like ours are)4 is the effect your vote will have on determining who wins the election. If your vote helps the better candidate win, it is ethical; if not, it is not. I’m not arguing that either candidate needs to be great, or even decent: Two terrible people might run, and in that case you just have to pick the one who is the least bad. One person will become President when the election is over, and if you used your vote on a doomed candidate, then you made it more likely that the President will be, by your own estimation, worse.
As you probably know if you’re this far into this piece, Trump is a uniquely terrible candidate for President. He’s the most overtly racist candidate since George Wallace in 1968, and by any reasonable measure the least qualified major party candidate in the history of the country.5 Whatever you think about Clinton, this is not a case of “both are crooks” or “they’re all the same”.6 Clinton is basically a run-of-the-mill Democrat; we have those all the time, and things stay pretty ordinary. Trump is a vindictive, corrupt, violent, incompetent man with no knowledge of policy and no interest in anything but confirming delusions of his own greatness. If he ran against George W. Bush, I think we would have a duty to vote for Bush, whom I consider a war criminal. If he ran against Nixon, I think we’d have a duty to vote for Nixon, who was forced from office for criminal corruption. Whatever you dislike about Clinton, Trump is far worse, and that means there is a strong ethical imperative to keep him out of office—as only a lot of votes for Clinton can do.
You will still have a conscience on November 9
The phrase that really stands out to me in a lot of the pro-Stein and pro-Johnson rhetoric I’ve seen is “voting my conscience”. The idea is that if, like many people, you think both Trump and Clinton are bad candidates—or even bad human beings—then you can’t personally bring yourself to cast a vote for either of them.
I think this is an oddly solipsistic way to think about conscience. Your personal relationship to your vote will not affect anyone else in the world; other people won’t even know how you voted unless you tell them. But the winner of the election will affect a lot of people. Millions of people will be harassed and deported, or they won’t. NATO will collapse, or it won’t. The press will remain free from government crackdowns, or it won’t.
If you help the worse candidate win, everything that happens after election day is, in small part, on you. The ethical choice you make in the ballot box can only go one of two ways: You help Clinton or you help Trump. If you’re passionate about Libertarian ideas or Green Party values, you can advocate for those things for the rest of your life, but those parties are not going to win on election day. Johnson and Stein aren’t a way not to choose; they’re just the most active way to pretend that you didn’t. If you recognize that Trump should not be President, vote to keep him out of office.
1. Of course, I don’t actually know how voters would have ranked the three candidates, but since Taft and Teddy were ideologically similar (and had even worked together closely in the past) I think it’s probably fair to assume that a primary preference for one usually indicates a secondary preference for the other. In general terms, this is a major reason why the two party system is so stable in America: Anyone who runs third party basically ensures that the voters ideologically closest to him will lose, since that’s where he’s splitting the vote. ↩
2. In a few scattered cases, people got one vote from a faithless elector. These include John G. Hospers (1972), Ronald Reagan (76), Lloyd Bentsen (88), and John Edwards (04). Of those, only Hospers was really a third-party candidate, but my strategic use of the word “earn” above was meant to exclude this weird, beside-the-point scenario. ↩
3. I hear people mention this a lot, but some cursory investigation shows it to be a little more complicated than it sounds—e.g., Jill Stein got matching funds during the primaries. ↩
4. I say “more or less” because of things like voter ID laws and the disenfranchisement of felons. These are serious issues, but I don’t think they contradict the broader argument of this post. ↩
5. As far as I can tell, there are only two other candidates who were neither elected to any office nor held an important post in the military. One is Horace Greeley, who briefly held office in Congress by appointment, helped found the Republican Party, published Marx and Engels in America, and was a longtime activist. The other is Wendell Willkie, again a longtime activist. He’s probably the closest thing to Trump on a resume basis, but at least he had a law degree and was against the KKK decades before Trump created the coalition they currently enjoy. ↩
6. As you might imagine, I don’t think that’s ever true; one candidate is always at least marginally better than the other. This was a major talking point about Al Gore and George W. Bush during 2000—”What does it matter? They’re the same!”—and then one guy won a Nobel Prize battling climate change and the other started the Iraq War. Does anyone really think those biographies would simply have swapped if Gore had won Florida? ↩