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Of 2016 supporters of minor parties, two-thirds favor Biden in 2020

In the 2016 presidential election, about 5.7 percent of votes went to minor party candidates.

Former Vice President Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign appearance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Monday.
REUTERS/Alan Freed

One more thing for Team Trump to worry about: Voters who voted for minor parties in 2016 were polled, and they prefer Biden over Trump by a 2-1 margin, according to an NBC News analysis.

It’s hard to anticipate the impact of this, even if it holds up, but it can’t be good for Trump.

Donald Trump managed to win the 2016 election while finishing second in the popular vote by 48.2 for Hillary Clinton to 46.1 for Trump. Our system, for reasons that we’ll perhaps discuss another day, makes it possible for the popular vote loser to win. And that system is still in effect. The last time anyone won the presidency while losing the popular vote by more than 2 percent was 1876, and that election was decided in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

The ‘corrupt bargain’ of 1876

In exchange for the deal that has gone down in history as the “corrupt bargain,” one of two such acts of corruption in U.S. history, Republicans got to keep the White House but had to withdraw the federal troops that were protecting the rights of the newly freed African Americans. In what whites called “the Redemption” of the South, Jim Crow laws returned the freed slaves to second-class citizenship for almost another century of what was sometimes called “slavery by another name.” We might all want to study up on how that went down.

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But back to the present and the recent past.

If you add up those 2016 Clinton-Trump percentages, you get only 94.3 percent of the vote, which means about 5.7 percent of votes went to minor party nominees. There will be minor party candidates on the ballot again this year. And every citizen has the right to vote for a ticket that has no chance of winning.

(An aside: Ranked-choice voting, which I support, would give those voters the opportunity to express their support for the their most preferred candidate, and then express their second-choice preference from one of the major party candidates and still not have what is sometimes called a “wasted” vote. But only Maine allows ranked-choice voting in presidential elections.)

The recent norm: Fewer choose minor candidates

In the three elections previous to 2016, the percentage of general election voters who voted for the two major party nominees combined was, 99.0 in 2004, 98.6 in 2008 and 98.3 in 2012. We’ll call that the norm, except when there’s an especially strong third-party or independent candidate, like Ross Perot a few cycles back. But we haven’t had one of those in the last several races, nor the current one.

The rest of this analysis is slightly conjectural on my part, but see if you agree. A lot of voters were unhappy with the two major-party nominees in 2016, and (the most conjectural piece of my thesis but I feel confident asserting it) did not think there was a serious chance of Donald Trump winning, didn’t “like” Hillary Clinton, and decided to protest by casting a “curse on both houses” vote for, in order: 

The Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who got 3.3 percent, Green candidate Jill Stein (1.1) or an independent, anti-Trump Republican named Evan McMullin, (0.54). (The Constitution Party ticket also got 0.15.) That’s why the top two finishers declined from 99 to 94.

If you buy my conjecture, a lot of those combined voters hated Trump, disliked Clinton and decided to express their mood by voting for neither and then, like most of the country, were surprised — and not pleasantly — when Trump won. Since then, many of them have moved from surprised to regretful as Trump has underperformed their lowest expectations. 

Trump’s in charge; election is about him

Heading into Election Day 2020, my belief is that – however much Trump tries to turn it into a referendum on “Sleepy Joe,” — the election is fundamentally about how many voters want four more years of Donald Trump. 

Trump cannot appeal to the vaguely dissatisfied low-information voter by asking, as he did in 2016, “What the hell do you have to lose?” Trump cannot now represent a vaguely better imaginary future based on your current level of dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country. He now owns the present, including the pandemic. He can’t encourage voters to think about their grievances and take a chance on something new. He’s not new. We know what he is. He’s the only president ever to have more disapprovers than approvers since such polling was invented.

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Trump would like to offer them another view, that things are better than they know they are, or that however bad he is, Joe Biden will be worse because Hunter Biden, because socialism, because Democrats hate white people, because Trump alone can fix it, because, because, because …

We’ve seen his pitch, most recently through four nights of primetime convention coverage, although I doubt very many persuadable voters sat through it and were impressed. His efforts to change the subject from who he is, what he has done, and his handling of the COVID pandemic are wearing thin.

And, my one new contribution of today is (and I can’t prove it) that many of those voters who decided in 2016 there was no important difference between the major party nominees so they might as well register a protest vote for a minor party will be significantly fewer than the 5.7 percent who did so in 2016, and that’s why the story about the two-out-of-three 2016 third-party voters who prefer Biden over Trump in 2020 might be significant. 

Or not. Anyway: Here’s another link to the poll indicating that two thirds of recent third party voters prefer Biden to Trump.