As Donald Trump’s prospects have diminished, so too has the likelihood that Gary Johnson, Jill Stein or Evan McMullin will play any significant role in the 2016 election.
To do so would require a close race between Trump and Hillary Clinton — and enough support for at least one of them to qualify for the nationally [broadcast] debates. So far, neither is happening.
American presidential campaigns are replete with unsuccessful bids by third-party hopefuls who aimed to influence the outcome, displace one of the major parties, provide a vehicle for protesting the major candidates or achieve some combination of those goals. But though Americans frequently dislike both main candidates, few independents ultimately had much electoral impact.
For example, in 1960, Southern segregationists sought to withhold enough electoral votes from both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon to throw the election into the House of Representatives, hoping it would elect someone more sympathetic to their views. They won electors in two Southern states but failed to prevent Kennedy’s election.
In 1948, left-winger Henry Wallace cost Harry Truman New York, and segregationist Strom Thurmond captured four Southern states. Truman still won.
And in 1992, computer magnate Ross Perot’s support in early polls spurred speculation he could win a three-way race. He finished third, and studies showed that, despite polling nearly 20 million votes and making the debates, he didn’t change a single state’s result.
There are two exceptions, one quite recent. In 2000, onetime consumer activist Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy drained off enough liberal votes in New Hampshire and Florida to elect President George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore.
Nader got fewer than 3 million of the 105 million votes cast, but his 22,198 votes in New Hampshire tripled Bush’s margin over Gore. In Florida, Nader’s 97,488 total was more than 100 times Bush’s disputed 537-vote margin. Victory in either state would have given Gore the presidency.
The most clear-cut case occurred more than a century ago, in 1912. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, running as the Progressive Party nominee after losing the Republican nomination, split the GOP vote so Democrat Woodrow Wilson won easily with incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft third.
Roosevelt proves the exception to the rule that independents who influence the outcome are generally not high profile hopefuls but mavericks who get relatively few votes in the right places.
Nader fit that pattern. So did former Minnesota Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who in 1976 ran as an independent, drew only 740,000 votes but nearly enabled President Gerald Ford to defeat Democrat Jimmy Carter by tipping three closely divided states to the GOP.
Sometimes, third party candidacies produce results opposite the predominant views of their voters.
That was true in 2000, when Nader’s voters were generally disaffected liberals who thought Gore too centrist. The result was the most conservative presidency of the past quarter century. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 candidacy cost Republicans the White House, though he may have preferred Wilson to the increasingly conservative Taft.
Others impact long-term ideology more than a single election. Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s strong showing in 1968 spurred President Richard Nixon to increase his appeal to conservative Southerners, helping build a national GOP majority for the next two decades.
This year, all three independent hopefuls are primarily protest vehicles for voters who don’t like either Trump (Johnson and McMullin) or Clinton (Stein). Stein has attracted some outspoken liberals who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge to Clinton. Johnson and McMullin are getting support from anti-Trump Republicans who also reject Clinton.
As a group, polls show they’re attracting more backers than recent independent hopefuls. But despite anecdotal evidence they’re appealing to disaffected mainstream voters and some prominent politicians, their numbers have stayed relatively stable — Johnson close to 10 percent, Stein with about half that. McMullin, just starting, doesn’t register yet. Barring a big change, none seems likely to reach the Commission on Presidential Debates’ 15 percent national threshold for inclusion in the first debate scheduled Sept. 26.
Still, given deep dislike for both Clinton and Trump, it would be no surprise if the three totaled more votes than in any election in 20 years. Polls suggest support for Johnson and McMullin could undermine Trump sufficiently to cost him a state or two, notably Utah.
But history suggests their totals will decline as Election Day nears and voters acknowledge the real choice, once again, is between the two major party nominees.