We are all familiar with the so-called “spoiler” argument against voting third-party: All it takes to win in our electoral system is to have more votes than any other candidate (a plurality), so if there are more than two, a candidate doesn’t need 51% to win. So, if enough people vote Green, for example, than the liberal side is split and the Republicans can end up with the most votes. Or, if enough conservatives vote third-party, the Democrats will end up with the most votes.
Leaving aside, for a moment, the debate between voting one’s conscience or ideals or pragmatically ensuring that the mainstream candidate you like least doesn’t win, in 2016, the math, and the “players” line up very differently than in past years.
In 2000, a small but vocal movement of liberals/progressives backed Nader because they felt Gore and the Democrats weren’t progressive enough. Nader was the best-known and “biggest” of the third-party candidates. There was no comparable dislike for Bush among those usually allied with the Republicans.
This year, for better or for worse, the usual alliances are falling apart. Billionaire industrialists and lobbyists that leftists – rightly or wrongly – like to cast as supervillians find both Clinton and Trump unpalatable. Some conservatives and Wall Street-ers are supporting Clinton because they are uncomfortable with Trump’s unpredictability, or with his lack of political experience – or with his seemingly-not-very-Republican foreign policy ideas. Some hard-core devotees of Bernie Sanders – who usually like the Greens best out of the third parties – would settle for Trump over Clinton. (Trump has said a few things that far-left voters agree with, mainly about international trade deals.)
And, while there is much dissatisfaction with both major candidates, overall, Trump seems to be the most unpopular. Prominent conservatives have searched frantically for another conservative to run against him.
As this Salon writer (who seems to support the Greens) puts it, “Who is spoiling for whom?”
Other stories suggest that third party candidates draw from both factions equally. See “Gary Johnson is an Equal Opportunity Spoiler.” and “One Thing The Polls Agree On: Voters Don’t Like Their Choices.” (Scroll through the top stories to find it.)
Another way of looking at all this might be to say that it’s the “satisfied-with-the-status-quo-or-the-past” voters versus the “change the system” voters. If this is the case, and Trump is appealing mostly to the change people, then increased attention to the third parties would likely result in a more divided “change” vote, leaving Clinton with the plurality.
And while speculation that Trump isn’t trying to win; that he would not serve even if elected; and that he may even have gotten into the race as a “double agent” or “false flag” to damage the GOP and/or help Hillary Clinton win, may sound crazy, much of what has and has not happened with Trump and his campaign is consistent with one or more of those theories.