Impact of a Third-Party Vote Unclear in Election

A prudential perspective is important, in considering whether such votes are ‘wasted’ or might help elect the least desirable major-party candidate.

Gov. George Wallace of Alabama garnered 13.5% of the popular vote in 1968, leading some to speculate that it gave Republican Richard Nixon the edge over Democrat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election.
Gov. George Wallace of Alabama garnered 13.5% of the popular vote in 1968, leading some to speculate that it gave Republican Richard Nixon the edge over Democrat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election. (photo: Harry Benson/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Catholic voters who are disenchanted with the two major-party options and are weighing a third-party candidate in the election for president may find themselves dogged by yet another dilemma: Does such a vote merely ensure that the candidate they deplore the most win — or, perhaps worse, is it a “waste” of a vote? 

Chad Pecknold, a theologian at The Catholic University of America, said it’s important for Catholics to focus on voting their conscience. “It is always better to follow the light of conscience that is informed by faith, and so voting for a third party is less about casting a deciding vote and more about doing the right thing,” Pecknold said.

But Colin Donovan, vice president for theology at the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), says voters must also exercise prudence in voting their conscience. The Register is a service of EWTN.

“Conscience and prudence are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other,” said Donovan, host of the Friday edition of Open Line and the EWTN Theology Roundtable. “Our conscience is the knowledge and prudence is the virtue that uses that knowledge in the act of voting.”

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas outlines eight parts of prudence, Donovan noted. For example, when exercising prudence, individuals must consult their memory of what have been the past consequences of such an act as well as their foresight on how the act may affect the future of their society. Prudence also means weighing the circumstances and exercising caution in acting, according to Aquinas. 

From a prudential perspective, Donovan warns Catholics about voting for third-party candidates.

“The danger for Catholics who are disenchanted with the candidates is to make a purely ideological decision separated [and] distinct from reality and prudence and the very practical decision which a political decision is,” Donovan said.

In this election, there are two significant alternative candidates. Libertarian Gary Johnson has been consistently polling in the high single digits. Green Party nominee Jill Stein has been trailing him in the single digits. Another candidate, Independent conservative Evan McMullin, who announced his run at the end of the summer, has yet to register in any major polls.

Unlike the parliamentary system that originated in Europe and has spread throughout the globe, the Electoral College is a winner-takes-all system tallied on a state-by-state basis. That means that smaller third parties are unlikely to end up as a direct part of any electoral decision with respect to the White House. Instead, they risk cutting into the support of one of the major candidates, thereby helping the other, according to Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at St. Anselm College.


Could Be Counterproductive

The upshot of all this is that a vote for a third-party candidate could end up being counterproductive. “A vote for a third-party candidate is probably actually a vote for the candidate you don’t want to win,” Galdieri said.

The classic case is the 2000 election in Florida, where the approximately 90,000 voters who opted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader ended up paving the way towards a victory for George W. Bush, who carried the state by just 537 votes, Galdieri said. Presumably, he said, most of those Nader voters would have preferred Democrat Al Gore over Bush.

But determining who is helped or hurt by the third-party candidates in this particular election is not as clear-cut as it may at first seem, according to Daniel Cox, a pollster and director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.

For example, take the case of Republicans who cannot accept Trump but do not want Clinton and who may be considering Johnson. “It’s not immediately apparent who that’s going to help or hurt,” Cox said.

That’s because some moderate anti-Trump Republicans may have been considering Clinton as an alternative but have ended up changing their minds in favor of Johnson. In that way, Johnson ends up drawing votes not only from Trump but also from Clinton.

That possibility is reflected in the national polls immediately ahead of the Sept. 26 debate between Trump and Clinton. In a four-way race, Clinton and Trump are now essentially in a dead heat, with Clinton at 43.1% support and Trump at 41.5%, according to the average of the latest polls, maintained by the Web site RealClearPolitics. Johnson stands at 7.4%, and Stein is at 2.4%.

Take the two third-party candidates out of the picture and both Clinton and Trump see a boost. Clinton goes to 46.6% and Trump rises to 44.3%. While Stein in theory could be hurting Clinton, her base of support also includes voters who would never support her anyway, Cox noted.


Other Historical Precedents

Historically, as well, third-party candidates do not always clearly hurt or help one of the major-party nominees. For example, it’s commonly assumed that Independent Ross Perot siphoned Republican votes away from President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, thereby ensuring a victory for Democrat Bill Clinton. But Galdieri said that assumption is actually a myth: Perot, he said, drew support from Democrats and Republicans.

Other notable elections where third-party candidates drew substantial support include 1968, when George Wallace won five Southern states and captured 13.5% of the popular vote nationally and is widely considered to have assisted in Richard Nixon’s victory over his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey.

Similarly, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party candidacy in the 1912 presidential election, in which Roosevelt finished second in the Electoral College and in popular votes ahead of Republican nominee William Howard Taft, is regarded as having played a decisive role in delivering the White House to Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson.

The latest PRRI poll, released as the end of August, shows that 4% of registered Catholic voters say they will be voting for someone other than Clinton or Trump. Just 1% specifically said they planned to pull the lever for Johnson, according to Cox.

Donovan urges those Catholics to reconsider. “A purely ideological decision is a waste of a vote, and I think it’s an abuse of the right to vote. It’s an abuse of the obligation the Church has put on us in democratic societies to participate in these judgments in a faithful and effective way,” Donovan said.

While some call third-party votes a waste, Cox shirks such language. “It’s a very personal decision. Who am I, or anyone else, to tell someone their vote is wasted?” he said.

Besides influencing the outcome of the election itself, there are other tangible consequences to voting for a third-party candidate. Those who win 5% of the vote become eligible for federal matching funds. Pushing a candidate’s level of support into the single digits also guarantees his or her party a spot on the ballot. The exact threshold varies by state.


Battleground States Impact

But voters supportive of third-party candidacies will have to weigh such long-term benefits against the immediate losses they might have to endure, in terms of helping elect their least-favored candidate, political pundits say.

That dilemma may become particularly acute in the so-called battleground states, where a vote for a third-party candidate could end up tipping the scales towards either Trump or Clinton.

Johnson has the potential to wield the greatest impact in the battleground states that are leaning Republican or Democrat. Galdieri cited two: North Carolina and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, Clinton currently leads Trump 44% to 39.3%. Adding in both Johnson and Stein, Clinton and Trump both drop by about a point. Johnson is at 9.7%, and Stein is at 2.3%. He said Johnson, who is the former New Mexico governor, might also put a traditionally Republican state like Arizona into play for the Democrats.

However, Johnson might have a greater impact in the opposite direction in the nearby battleground state of Colorado. A CNN/ORC poll, conducted between Sept. 20-25, found Clinton narrowly ahead of Trump in a hypothetical two-candidate race, but instead slightly behind when the third-party candidacies of Johnson and Stein are included.

Johnson commanded 13% support in the CNN/ORC poll of Colorado voters. An earlier state poll by Emerson College also found Trump nosing ahead in part because of Johnson’s influence on state voter choices, with an increasing number of women voters shifting allegiances from Clinton to him.

All that said, in an election year in which the unexpected has been the rule, there is the hypothetical chance that Johnson could break out of the high single digits and make it a three-way race by actually winning one or more individual states. In the unlikely event that, as a consequence of this, no candidate wins the necessary 270 electoral college votes to secure the presidency, the election would get tossed to the House of Representatives, which would make the decision.

For a time in 1992, it seemed like Perot had turned it into a three-way race, before sinking back in the polls. In this election, Johnson’s best shot would be making it into one of the official presidential debates, perform better there than Trump and Clinton and benefit afterward from a surge of support. For that to happen, he needs to hit 15% in the national polls, according to rules set by the Presidential Debate Commission.

So far, that hasn’t happened. But neither has Johnson’s support evaporated.

Referring to the possibility of a three-way race, Galdieri said, “I think there’s more chance of it this year than any other year, but it’s still a very low chance.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.

Register staff contributed to this report.