The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You can blame the electoral college for Trump winning. But don’t blame Gary Johnson and Jill Stein.

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico governor, leaves the Utah State Capitol in May. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Hillary Clinton's supporters are searching for reasons why Donald Trump pulled a shocking upset Tuesday, and so far the electoral college is Scapegoat No. 1.

That's at least justified. Blaming Gary Johnson and Jill Stein for Clinton's loss, on the other hand, is not.

CNN and Mic have similar pieces noting that if half (or more) of third-party voters in the key states of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had just picked Clinton instead of Johnson or Stein, she would have won!

Here's Mic:

If you voted for a third-party candidate in 2016, congratulations! You played a major, if not decisive, role in helping Donald Trump become the next president of the United States.
In almost every swing state where the race was close, both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein's share of the vote would have been enough to sway the election to Hillary Clinton.
In Florida, nearly 204,000 people voted for Johnson, and more than 63,000 voted for Stein, according to the New York Times.
Even if Clinton won just half of those 267,000 voters, that would have been enough for her to overtake Trump's 132,000-vote win.

Here's CNN's recap of the argument in Pennsylvania:

Trump stood 68,236 votes ahead of Clinton, with 99% of the vote in Wednesday evening. The total support for Johnson and Stein was 191,565 — almost three times Trump's margin of victory. CNN projected a Trump victory here.
If half of Johnson's supporters and all of Stein's supporters had voted Clinton, it would have flipped the state.

But that “if” doesn't comport with what we've seen in pre-election polling. And the pieces aren't really arguing that Clinton could have won if Johnson and Stein weren't in the race; instead, they're arguing that she could have won if she didn't lose voters to third-party candidates and Trump somehow still did. Which is a very, very different thing and doesn't really prove that they “spoiled” anything.

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First, as I wrote on Election Day, polling in key states actually showed Johnson and Stein basically combined to cancel each other out. The margins in polls with them included were often almost identical to polls without them. In every state but one, excluding them from the race changed the margin by 0.3 points or less.

So granting that half of Johnson's supporters and all of Stein's supporters were available to Clinton, as CNN does, isn't really borne out. It seems Johnson pulled somewhat more from Trump, while Stein's smaller share of the vote was coming mostly at Clinton's expense.

Second, even if you grant that premise, it doesn't mean that Johnson and Stein being in the race changed the result. The argument isn't that no Johnson and no Stein means President Clinton; it's that Clinton would have won if none of her potential voters had gone third-party but Trump's still had (somehow).

This is a weird hypothetical. You can certainly argue that Clinton could have won the race if she somehow hadn't lost any voters to third-party candidates, but it doesn't prove that Johnson and Stein actually helped Trump by being in the race. It's straining to prove the point that Johnson and Stein made a difference, when in fact it's very unlikely they did.

And again: If you did just pull them out of the race, the argument no longer holds.

The polls above suggest it wouldn't really change the results. In them, Trump leads by at least 1 point in Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He leads by 0.3 points in Michigan, which hasn't officially been called for him.

What's more, splitting Johnson's vote between Trump and Clinton — rather than arbitrarily giving half to Clinton and none to Trump — and giving all of Stein's vote to Clinton is only good enough to add Michigan and Wisconsin (barely) to Clinton's column, not Florida and Pennsylvania.

Even if you take Michigan and Wisconsin away from Trump, he still has 269 votes before a likely (but yet-to-be-called) victory in Arizona, which would still result in President Trump.