By Dave Andrusko
Given how incredible tight the last two presidential elections have been, as we approach 2024 we’re sure to see more and more stories along the lines of “The stark numbers driving Democratic panic about a 3rd-party bid in 2024,” by Mark Murray of NBC News. It’s an interesting argument.
“Among all the reasons Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 but Hillary Clinton didn’t four years earlier, one looms especially large for the coming presidential election: the share of the third-party vote,” Murray writes. “In 2016, 6% of all voters cast ballots for third-party and write-in candidates, with Libertarian Gary Johnson getting more than 3% of the national vote and Green Party nominee Jill Stein capturing more than 1%. But in 2020, that proportion fell to 2%.”
Can that change that small really affect the election outcome next year in any meaningful way? Consider…
“The difference effectively changed the threshold the major candidates needed to reach to win key battleground states — from 47% and 48% in 2016 to 49% and 50% in 2020,” Murray says. “That, Democrats say, made it easier for Trump to win in ’16 but not in ’20. And the numbers illustrate why Democratic groups — eyeing a possible, if not likely, rematch between Biden and Trump — want to keep the third-party vote share as small as possible…”
Murray compares the results from the 2016 and 2020 elections. Trump won one and lost the other, even though his share of the vote (“nationally, in key battleground states and in key counties) stayed virtually the same.” “What changed is that Biden grew the Democratic Party vote share by 2 to 3 points across the board, while the protest vote for other candidates dropped.”
Murray offers the outcome in several states to prove his point, starting with Pennsylvania. “Trump defeated Clinton in the state in 2016, 48.2% to 47.5%. But as the third-party vote declined in 2020, Biden won it, 49.9% to 48.7%.”
The point Murray (and the Democrats) are making is the need to keep the percent of the vote won by the traditional fringe parties—the aforementioned Libertarian Party and the Green Party—closer to 2020 than 2016 and to keep any new third party off the ballot in key battleground states.
Murray’s stories end with a reminder and an obvious caveat:
Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News and an expert on third-party politics in the U.S., expects the Libertarian Party to be on the ballot in most states, and he expects the Green Party to qualify in about half the country.
But he said it’s impossible to estimate — at least at this early stage — how big the third-party vote will be in next year’s election.
“It’s really impossible to predict,” Winger said. “There’s so much time, and so many things could happen.”