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Third party people: Minnesotans’ proud history of voting for minor-party candidates

No, Libertarian Gary Johnson isn’t going to win Minnesota. But if history is a guide, he may do better here than in other states.

According to the analysts at FiveThirtyEight, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is polling around six percent in Minnesota.
MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday

One of the questions du jour for Minnesotans who dislike this year’s historically unpopular major party presidential candidates is whether or not to vote for one of the many third party contenders on November’s ballot.

There are lots of options: Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, who have both made previous runs, and late-to-the-game Evan McMullin, endorsed by Minnesota’s Independence Party, who announced his candidacy in August and isn’t on the ballot in every U.S. state. The American Delta Party has a candidate. So do the Socialist Workers Party and the Constitution Party. Even the Legal Marijuana Now Party has put up a candidate for president.

Will any of these candidates be elected? Probably not. Will any of them win Minnesota, or get even one electoral vote? Unlikely. Are they a waste of a vote? Depends on how you look at it.

Stronger support in Minnesota

Third party presidential candidates have done better in Minnesota than they have in the U.S. on the whole in recent years. The most vote-getting third party presidential contenders in every presidential election since 1992 have received a higher share of votes here than they have nationally.

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In 1992 and 1996, there was H. Ross Perot, the twangy Texarkana tech billionaire who ran on an economic populist message. He got nearly 24 percent of votes in Minnesota in 1992 — a sizable enough share that if Perot voters had instead voted for George H.W. Bush, he might have won the state, rather than Bill Clinton — compared to 18.9 percent nationally. He got a smaller share of votes in 1996, but he still did better in Minnesota than he did overall in the U.S.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who ran 2000, 2004 and 2008, also won a larger percentage of votes in Minnesota than he did nationwide. When Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate on the ballot this year, ran in 2012, however, he won just under 1 percent of the popular vote nationwide and 1.2 percent of Minnesotans’ votes.

Third party candidates' vote share, Minnesota and U.S.
The highest vote-getting third party candidate in every presidential election since 1992 has done better in Minnesota than in the U.S. as a whole.
Source: Minnesota Secretary of State, Federal Election Commission

This year, the polls put Johnson at 5.6 percent of the vote nationally and just a hair higher, 6 percent, in Minnesota, according to FiveThirtyEight. The website, which uses statistical analysis to predict electoral outcomes, hasn’t published predictions for Stein in Minnesota, though three polls conducted in September and October put her at 2 percent or less of the Minnesota vote. RealClearPolitics’ average of national polls has Stein at 1.7 percent.

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier predicts that this year, Johnson, who may peel votes from Donald Trump, and Stein, who may do well with Minnesota’s Bernie Sanders contingent, will exceed their national averages here.

While Minnesota isn’t the only state where voters have voted third party at higher rates than the national average since since the 1990s (the others are Alaska, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah and Vermont), Schier thinks third party candidates have been able to get a larger share of Minnesota votes than the U.S., on average, for a few reasons. One is that Minnesota’s population is, on average, highly educated, and voters may be more aware of third party options here than they are in other states.

Third party history

There’s also a legacy of third party successes here. For what it’s worth, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, an unlikely union of urban laborers and rural farmers founded in 1918 is remembered as one of the most successful third party movements in American history. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the party managed to elect a legislative majority in the Minnesota statehouse, three governors, U.S. senators and members of Congress. It was absorbed by the Democratic Party — making the DFL — in the mid-’40s.

That’s ancient history at this point, but more recently, the Reform Party’s (now the Independence Party) Jesse Ventura was elected with a plurality of votes in 1998. Tim Penny and Tom Horner, who both ran for governor on the Independence Party ticket in 2002 and 2010, respectively, got 16 percent and 12 percent of votes. Around that time, the Independence Party had a couple sitting state legislators and an appointed congressman.

All of this isn’t to say third party presidential candidates always do well in Minnesota: in 1988, Libertarian Ron Paul got about 0.24 percent of the popular vote, compared to 0.47 percent nationwide. In 1984, David Bergland, also a Libertarian, got 0.14 percent of the vote in Minnesota, compared to 0.25 percent nationwide. And in 1968, more than 13 percent of Americans voted for “firebrand segregationist” George Wallace, who ran as an Independent, while just 4 percent of Minnesotans did.

Why vote third party

So who are these third party voters?

Political independence is a social norm — people like the idea of it. But when it comes down to it, there are really very few minor party voters, said Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University, and the author of “Party Politics in America,” which is standard issue in many political science courses.

“When you ask people in a poll, ‘Do you think there should be more choices and more parties,’ the majority of people will say yes,” she said. “But when you look at their behavior in elections, we find that minor parties get really small amounts of support.”

In some cases, their choice to vote for a third party candidate has to do with ideology, said Geoffrey Peterson, the chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“Obviously, you’ve got the ideological voters. They’re hardcore Libertarians or Greens or Communists or Marxists or whatever. They vote that way because there’s an ideological component to it,” he said. “People who are sort of a combination of distrustul of the motives of government, and also feel like government doesn’t pay attention to them.”

But most of the time, it’s a protest vote, Hershey said.

“Typically, it’s when the two parties just seem to a particular individual as not speaking to them, as not answering the kinds of questions that are important to them,” Hershey said.

Perot, who ran for president in both 1992 and 1996, is a good example of that, Schier said.

“Republicans were upset with (George H.W.) Bush, and (Bill) Clinton had a number of problems as a candidate,” he said. “Perot was saying ‘A curse on all their houses,’ and there were a number of Minnesotans who were sympathetic to that message.”

More evidence that third party voters tend to be motivated by spite? People who vote for one minor party candidate are more likely to vote for another — even if the views of the second party are nothing like the first’s, Hershey said.

Party planks and major party status

As things stand now in Minnesota, Trump is far enough behind that any conservatives who peel off into Johnson and McMullin’s camps are unlikely to affect the election’s outcome, Schier said. Meanwhile, the appearance of a comfortable lead for Clinton in Minnesota could cause liberals to peel off into the Stein camp, but not in high enough numbers to ruin the Democratic nominee’s chances.

But winning isn’t everything. One way minor parties can gain a foothold in public policy is by gaining major party status. The requirements for doing so vary by state, but in Minnesota, major party status is granted if a candidate for statewide office gets 5 percent or more of the vote.

With that comes automatic access to the ballot and eligibility for public funding of campaigns, among other benefits. Major party status sticks around for two general elections before a party again needs to meet major party qualification requirements.

Currently, the only two major parties in Minnesota are the Republican and Democratic ones. The Independence Party held onto major party status for 20 years until 2014, and the Green Party had it for a while after Ralph Nader ran in 2000. But if Johnson’s polling numbers hold up through the election, the Libertarian Party could win major party status in Minnesota.

The problem with that is, minor parties have rarely used it to their benefit by building a party apparatus in the states, Hershey said: Rarely do you see Libertarians running for county surveyor or council.

Perhaps the most long-lasting legacy of third parties is in bringing public attention to issues that the major parties aren’t focused on, Peterson said.

“If we go back to Perot, neither Bush nor Clinton had put forward a plan to balance the budget effectively until Perot came along, and then suddenly both Bush and Clinton had plans to balance the budget,” he said.

Another example: The Democratic Party of the 1920s wasn’t particularly progressive, Hershey said. But after the stock market crashed in 1929, plummeting the country into the Great Depression, parts of the Socialist Party’s platform became ripe for picking by New Deal Democrats, including child labor laws and minimum wage.