Maybe the answer to the impending election year train wreck in 2016 is not just to find and run a third party alternative to the atrocious Mr. Trump or the sleazy self-dealing Mrs. Clinton but to make that a means of throwing this election to the House of Representatives which, under the Constitution, gets to decide the presidential race if no candidate secures the necessary majority of electoral votes. With no good option for American voters, who neither subscribe to the Trumpian urge to demonize others or the socialist panaceas pushed by today’s Democrats (which have already brought disaster to places as far apart as Venezuela and Greece) — not to mention the leftist driven self-flagellation of our national culture — the case has been made for a “third party candidate.” But even the one “third party” with a chance of getting its candidate on the ballot in all fifty states, the Libertarian Party, looks shaky here, its standard bearer having recently declared on national TV that he hasn’t smoked marijuana in about a month and will pledge not to smoke it while in the White House. Now that’s a campaign pledge with a difference.
Pressed on other questions near and dear to Libertarians’ hearts, the candidate, former New Mexico Republican governor Gary Johnson, refused to stand up for the right of those whose beliefs put them at odds with our current national mood to force religious dissenters to bake cakes or do photo shoots for same sex weddings that run counter to their personal beliefs. Johnson hemmed and hawed, after having been so forthright on his marijuana use. Add to that his diffidence on questions of defense spending and it begins to look like even the Libertarians are having a tough time fielding a serious alternative to the Trump-Clinton nexus now forming just over the horizon.
To have any kind of a chance at all, Johnson will have to get public exposure and to do that he needs access to the presidential debate stage. Yet to get on the stage, between Hill and The Donald, he’ll need to reach an average of 15% support in national polling. As the candidate himself pointed out, during a recent interview, large numbers of polls aren’t even including his name in their questionnaires. How can he reach the needed percent, he asked, if he isn’t even included on the scorecard?
But even if he gets enough polling support to gain entry to the presidential debates, Johnson remains a poor alternative to the Big Two. He’s not much of a speaker, though he’s quick to speak his mind (which is at least refreshing). Yet his answers often seem confused, the product of inexperience on the national stage perhaps — or has he just failed to stop smoking his own product (he runs a marijuana company these days) early enough to catch up on things before this election cycle?
To be effective, a “third party” candidate has to take votes from both major parties in order to deny either “major” candidate the electoral votes needed to waltz into the White House. Some 270 electoral college votes are required to win the presidency and these are generally awarded winner-take-all, by state, to the candidate with the majority of the popular vote in that state. So any third party candidate is up against it from the get-go. And it can be particularly hard for one like Johnson whose libertarian-leaning views cut across the grain of so many voters’ beliefs. It’s hard to win a race when you’re relatively unknown with insufficient funding to buy the needed name recognition in any case, and doubly so when your positions are as controversial as some of his are.
As of now, the odds militate against denying either major candidate enough electoral votes to win the presidency. But it’s not impossible. In this election cycle Democrats have their usual advantage, being strong in the more populous coastal regions of the country (with more electoral votes) while Republicans get their strength in the less populous heartland. Libertarian views are a minority in all states however.
According to some projections, the Democratic candidate can count on a relatively certain 217 electoral votes to start, leaving her (or him?) only 53 electoral votes short of the White House. Republicans, on the other hand, go into the race with about 191 electoral votes in their pocket and so need to claim at least another 79. There are about 130 electoral delegates under this scenario up for grabs in states that have historically swung either way between Democrats and the GOP. Johnson, hardly an inspiring candidate, will have to look to win enough toss-up states to deny an outright majority to either of his competitors and keep him in the race if neither Trump nor Clinton clinch the needed 270 electoral votes.
In a three way contest in the House, Johnson, a former Republican governor could win enough support in the GOP controlled House of Representatives to emerge as a dark horse president. Hillary Clinton would likely have no real chance under most scenarios in this picture even if she happened to get the largest plurality of electoral votes since Republican House members are least likely to select her. Trump could still claim majority Republican support, of course, but in that case he’d have to bend more, wheel and deal with House representatives to claim his prize — a come-down for this man who imagines himself winning a national mandate to shut down borders, purge Muslims from our midst and initiate trade wars. A Trump presidency issuing from a vote in Congress, while unprecedented in this country since the 1820’s, would leave The Donald weaker and less able to wield his usual heavy hand over lesser mortals.
States which could go either way in the election include New Hampshire (4 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), North Carolina (15), Florida (29), Wisconsin (10), Iowa (6), Colorado (9) and Nevada (6). If Johnson can win in his native west (a big if, given his thinly funded candidacy) he can take home fifteen electoral votes right out of the box (Colorado and Nevada) and then will need another 65 to throw this to the House. Florida, the biggest prize has many northeast liberals in its retirement communities but Donald Trump is a high profile, albeit part-time, Florida resident himself and a big investor in the state with a strong following as his trouncing of Florida home boy Marco Rubio more than demonstrated during primary season. So Florida is unlikely to be available for Johnson and can be expected to go to one of the two major candidates.
Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina appear to offer Johnson better options with a total of 46 electoral votes between them, although the innate religious conservatism of a state like North Carolina could make Johnson’s libertarianism a hard sell. So strike North Carolina, leaving Johnson with a possible pick-up of only 31 electoral votes. If he can then go on to take Wisconsin, home of popular Republican Governor Scott Walker and House Speaker Paul Ryan, both some time Trump antagonists in a state that proved hostile territory for Trump before, Johnson could add 10 more votes to his total, bringing his number to 41. That still leaves him short by 38 votes in the electoral college so let’s give Johnson New Hampshire’s four electoral votes (after all, it is the “Live Free or Die” state), leaving Johnson to eke out just 34 more votes.
Unfortunately, there are only 21 unclaimed electoral votes left under this scenario, putting either Trump or Clinton over the top. Assuming we give all the remaining 21 to Johnson, a big assumption but not out of the ballpark, he will still need at least 13 more to throw the race into the House. He could conceivably pick these up though from other western states in his own backyard. Utah, the home of former Massachusetts governor and past GOP standard bearer Mitt Romney could conceivably throw their six into the Johnson pot, too, especially in light of the savaging Romney has sustained at Trump’s hands. With only seven more electoral votes needed to stop either of the major candidates from taking home the prize, it’s not inconceivable that Johnson could also take his own home state. New Mexico has five electoral votes, leaving Johnson only two short.
Can he find them? It would have helped if he were charismatic, in the mold of one-time Republican conservative hero Barry Goldwater, but it’s unlikely Johnson can grow that kind of stuff in the short time left to him before November. So are we destined to get Trump or Hillary?
Given current demographic trajectories the math looks insurmountably steep from here. But the summer has just begun and the fall campaign is still a ways off and lots can happen between now and then. Hillary is still sitting uneasily under the damoclean sword of a possible indictment for mishandling sensitive government material under her supervision and Trump, well he’s still Trump. He’s already managed to blow the progress he’s made towards party unification since becoming the GOP’s presumptive nominee in early May through lack of discipline and an eerie sense of personal entitlement that seems to animate his every decision. Who’s to say he won’t keep it up going into the Republican convention in Cleveland and beyond? If he’s really smart he won’t, of course, but so far his reality TV instincts have seemed to trump his better angels (if there are any) every time.
If a third party candidacy is to derail the juggernaut of this seeming inevitable Clinton-Trump choice come November, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is going to have to up his game. But the two “major” candidates will also need to continue to stumble as they’ve been doing since the primary season began winding down.
Obviously they will do what they can to avoid that, but if past is prologue, they may not be able to help themselves. Go Johnson!