The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why third parties should stop running candidates for president

Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins in Albany, N.Y., in November 2018. (Hans Pennink/AP)
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If you had to pinpoint when third parties reached the height of their influence in modern U.S. presidential politics, it would have to be 2000, when Green Party nominee Ralph Nader received more than 97,000 votes in Florida, far more than George W. Bush’s 537-vote declared margin of victory. Which, given everything that happened over the subsequent eight years, was not exactly something to be proud of.

Though the effect was not quite as stark, in 2016, Green Party nominee Jill Stein received votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that exceeded the margin by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in each state. This year, we’re hearing less about the third parties, which have run into some trouble of late.

But this election — in which a vote for the Greens or the Libertarians has become almost impossible to justify — might lead them to reconsider their role in presidential politics.

The latest news is that because of a mundane paperwork snafu, the Green Party will not have its nominee, Howie Hawkins, on the ballot in Wisconsin, which makes a Joe Biden victory there significantly more likely.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Monday against the Greens, who had been disqualified because of discrepancies in addresses listed for their vice-presidential candidate on their application. Because they were not quick enough in appealing an initial decision by election officials, large numbers of ballots had already been sent out without the Green Party line on them; had they won, it would have meant sending out a second round of ballots, which would have caused extensive confusion.

To the Greens, it surely seems terribly unfair. Republicans are also deeply disappointed; it looks as though they will fail in their absurd effort to get rapper Kanye West on the Wisconsin ballot as well.

But we should ask why the Green Party, or any other third party, runs presidential candidates at all.

You can understand why they do: It’s a way to get attention for themselves and their views. People care about presidential campaigns. It’s the big show.

But nothing good comes of it, and in the worst-case scenario, they can help produce a disaster. Like Donald Trump becoming president of the United States.

What kind of establishment stooge am I to want to silence these important voices, you might ask? I’m not trying to silence them at all. I think it would be better if we had stronger third parties. But running in presidential campaigns doesn’t make them stronger.

Like it or not, we have a winner-take-all system when it comes to elections for president, Congress, and many other offices. Third-party candidates won’t win, they can only siphon votes away from candidates who agree with them on some things but not everything. The idea that doing so forces major-party candidates to be more responsive to their ideas — one justification they offer — has precisely zero evidence to back it up.

For instance, Biden is indeed much more liberal than he used to be or than Clinton was in 2016. But that’s not because of what happened with Stein four years ago, or because of the threat posed to Biden’s election by Hawkins. It’s because Democratic voters have moved to the left.

And to those potential third-party voters who say they just can’t get inspired by Biden: Who said you have to be inspired by your vote for president? Who said your presidential vote has to be a complete expression of everything you believe? It’s a dangerously narrow way to view politics.

Sometimes you vote for president for a very specific reason that stands apart from much of what you might like to see in the future. If you think that Trump is a monster, getting rid of him is a really good reason to vote for Biden, even if he’ll disappoint you in many ways.

If you like what the Green Party stands for, you’ll do a lot better to find ways to make it stronger on the state and local levels. There may be elections in your area where a third-party candidate can win, and then have real influence and power, which will help build the party and advance its ideas.

To be clear, third parties already organize on the local level; I’m not telling them something they don’t already know. But the problem they pose is with those casual voters, the ones who want to make a statement that they believe someone like Biden is a corporate sellout — but want to do it in the easiest way possible, a way that doesn’t require them to think too much about the complex nature of political power.

And plenty of third parties don’t run presidential candidates, even if they face their own challenges (the Working Families Party, which has been extremely influential in New York and endorsed Biden, is now facing a threat to its own access to the ballot which could greatly diminish its power, thanks to state Democrats).

The system is built and maintained by the two major parties, which would be happy to see third parties disappear (except when they can use them to undermine their opponents, as Republicans are now doing with the Greens). That makes building support and influence all the more challenging. But at this point, we can pretty well say that whatever a third party’s strategy is for creating real change, running a candidate for president isn’t going to work.

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