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Here’s why a third-party candidate won’t win the White House in 2016

Sure, voters are Googling third-party candidates like crazy, but that’s not enough.


Dan Friedman

Internet Culture

Posted on May 26, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 5:18 pm CDT

American voters seem primed to jump into bed with a third party this fall, but it’s not clear any party is up to welcoming them.  

With presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s national unfavorable numbers at astronomical levels and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s nearly as bad, voters are looking into other options, polls and Google search data show.Those results show the restlessness of the electorate, but Googling is a long way from voting.

Google searches for “third party candidate” or “independent” have reached their highest level, according to iQuanti, a digital marketing company. The searches jumped in March as Clinton and Trump began to wrap up their respective party nominations, declined in April, and shot back up in May.

Two candidates seeking the Libertarian Party nomination drew the most specific keyword searches. John McAfee, founder of the computer anti-virus company had the most, 375,000, during the poll’s seven-month period ending April 30. (Those searches may also have revealed McAfee’s stint as a fugitive from authorities in Belize while labeled a “person of interest” in the murder of another American expatriate there.)

Googling is a long way from voting. 

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the favorite to capture the Libertarian nomination at the party’s convention this weekend, drew the second most Google searches with 350,000. Progressive activist Jill Stein, the likely Green Party nominee, ranked in third place with 200,000 searches.

Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Tuesday found 47 percent of registered voters say they would consider a third-party nominee. That’s up from 40 percent in 2012. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found that 44 percent of voters said they wanted a third-party option in November.

But such results probably exaggerate the potential appeal of alternative party bid. The voters who want a third party option come from across the ideological spectrum, from #NeverTrump conservatives to #BernieBros resisting Hillary. They want a third party suited to their political views. Parties and potential independent candidates have specific policy positions that will turn away many of those curious third-party voters as soon as they google them.

Past American presidential elections abound in third-party bids, but no candidate outside the leading parties has ever even come close to winning.

Only 1.5 percent of voters in the last two presidential elections voted for someone other than Democratic and Republican nominees. The best third parties have done is play spoiler, or near spoiler: Take Teddy Roosevelt in 1912; George Wallace in 1968, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. Those candidates’ most lasting success may have been forcing big parties to adjust to pick up their supporters. That may be the extent of the ambitions of the Libertarian Party this year.

The party can boast 10 percent support in a few recent polls. If Johnson can claim the nomination this weekend, he may get a boost that puts him near the 15 percent in national polling. Reaching that figure would allow him onstage in general election debate as and a chance at winning over millions more voters who watch. Johnson just added former Massachusetts Republican Governor William Weld to the ticket, giving the party’s bonafides a boost.

Past American presidential elections abound in third-party bids, but no candidate outside the leading parties has ever even come close to winning. 

But the Libertarian Party shows few signs that it can or even wants to capture enough disaffected voters to become a serious, lasting third party, on the model of the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain.

The Libertarians have virtually no money in the bank. Johnson and Weld are focused on raising enough just to hire staff and campaign around the country. They also have work to do to get the party on the ballot in the 18 more states.

Asked in a recent CNN interview if he is courting fellow Republican lawmakers looking for an alternative to Trump, Weld said no.

“I wouldn’t ask another politician to endorse our ticket until I thought I had a winning proposition for them,” he said.

Weld and other Libertarian leaders describe their presidential campaign in part as a way to highlight their issues, not to win.

“Our purpose is to put in front of the country the fact that you can have an administration that’s fiscally conservative and socially inclusive and see what the country thinks about that,” Weld told CNN.

One issue the party pushes is marijuana legalization. While the issue has gained mainstream support, touting pot, as opposed to budget cuts or foreign policy restraint, could leave Libertarians’ bid compromised by a stereotype of a party for “Atlas Shrugged” clutching hippies.

Johnson, who became CEO of a marijuana company in 2014, seems unconcerned. In March, he told the Daily Caller that he recently had 20 milligrams of “Cheeba Chews,” a pot-infused taffy.

“I don’t want to shy away from it,” Libertarian Party Executive Director Wes Benedict said in recent interview, when asked about pot legalization.

Beyond Libertarians, third-party pickings are slim. 

Benedict said that the success of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, belies the conventional wisdom against candidates appearing “too radical” is an electoral handicap.

Beyond Libertarians, third-party pickings are slim.

A group of NeverTrumpers including “Weekly Standard” Publisher William Kristol, Mitt Romney and Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse has made noises about launching a conservative anti-Trump effort, but has not found a candidate. If they did, they would be hard-pressed to get on the ballot in most states.

The Green Party is a better ideological fit for anti-Hillary Sanders voters than Johnson. But Stein is on the ballot in just 20 states so far and has not shown she can overcome the narrow regional and ideological appeal that won her just .36 percent of the vote in her 2012 bid.

Stein has received the same number of Google searches as futurist writer and “Transhumanist” Zoltan Istvan, who is also running for president.

On Sunday, Dallas Mavericks owner and reality TV star Mark Cuban said on NBC’s “Meet the Press he’s potentially available to join any ticket, including a third-party bid.

In what’s become one of the weirdest election years in U.S. history, who knows? Maybe Cuban will join the transhumanist ticket.

Dan Friedman has worked as senior Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News and reported on Senate and congressional oversight for the National Journal. He started his reporting career in Boston. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds a Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Follow him on Twitter @dfriedman33.  

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*First Published: May 26, 2016, 1:32 pm CDT