As election officials continued counting ballots cast during the 2020 presidential election, some Republican strategists are questioning whether votes for third-party candidates could have closed the gap between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in key battleground states.
Neither candidate had enough electoral votes needed to end the race by Friday night, though Biden was ahead in terms of both the Electoral College and the popular vote. A handful of swing states were still up for grabs Friday, and in some cases the number of votes cast for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen exceeded the gap between Biden and Trump.
“Libertarian voters could have swung the Electoral College by at least 22 votes by supporting Trump in battleground states Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada,” political strategist Ryan Cassin told Fox News. “By throwing away their votes, they’ve likely become spoilers for the Trump reelection effort.”
Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pointed to his state specifically as a place where Jorgensen’s vote tallies exceeded the margin between Biden and Trump. “If it holds,@LPNational candidate got 38,000 votes in Wisconsin and margin between @JoeBiden and @realDonaldTrump is less than 21,000 votes,” Walker tweeted. The Associated Press called the state for Biden on Wednesday, with a difference of less than 21,000 votes remaining between Biden and Trump by Friday evening. Meanwhile, more than 38,000 voters cast their ballots for Jorgensen, according to the AP’s election results.
Votes cast for Jorgensen in Georgia and Pennsylvania also exceeded the margins between Biden and Trump on Friday night, and her vote tally in Arizona was also within striking distance.
Jorgensen herself has brushed aside the idea that third-party candidates take votes from the two major parties.
“I don’t consider it taking votes, because those votes belong to the American voters,” Jorgensen told CNBC. She added that her party’s research indicates that most of its support in elections comes from independents and first-time voters.
“Libertarians aren’t adjuncts of the Democratic or Republican parties, and we tend to get blamed by either when they lose,” Libertarian Party Chair Joe Bishop-Henchman said in an email to Newsweek. “If a candidate fails to win over Libertarians, the answer is not limiting voters’ choices but nominating better candidates that speak to libertarian issues.”
So far in the 2020 election, Jorgensen has more than 1.7 million votes or about 1.2 percent of the total cast. Her performance marks the second-best by a Libertarian Party presidential candidate since Gary Johnson received more than 3 percent of the popular vote in 2016.
“Despite coronavirus making campaigning difficult and a media blackout of our candidates, winning the support of 1 of every 90 Americans isn’t bad,” Bishop-Henchman said. “We also elected our first state legislator in a generation and a number of local officials, and we will continue building on that and win more next time.”
Third-party candidates are often criticized by Democrats and Republicans who say they draw voters away from the major party candidates. The last time a president who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican held office was Millard Fillmore, a member of the Whig Party, who ascended to the presidency in 1850 after the death of Zachary Taylor. The most traction a third-party candidate has gained in a recent presidential race was Ross Perot, who won more than 18 percent of the popular vote in 1992. Twenty years ago, another third-party candidate had a significant impact on the 2000 presidential race when the Green Party’s Ralph Nader won more than 2 percent of the popular vote in a close race between the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, and the eventual Republican president, George W. Bush.
Dan Lee, an assistant political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, pointed to Jorgensen’s performance and that of Johnson four years ago as examples of how a lack of investment in the major party candidates played out among third-party voters. “People were unhappy about politics in general. The time was ripe for a third-party candidate,” Lee said of the 2016 election.
The difference this year is that there is a stronger sense of negative partisanship, Lee told Newsweek. The fear of voting for a candidate unlikely to win likely discouraged many third-party candidates from doing so, he said.
“I think we’re kind of stuck in this loop where people are just going to be afraid to pull the trigger and vote for a third-party candidate because they are going to be especially afraid of throwing the election to their least-favorite side,” Lee said.
While Bishop-Henchman said his party’s supporters are not “adjuncts” of either major party, many political analysts have said that Libertarian Party voters tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. According to research conducted by Christopher Devine, an assistant political science professor at University of Dayton who has published analyses on third-party candidates, Libertarian voters did lean conservative while voting in the 2016 presidential election.
“Our estimate for 2016 was that, among those Libertarian voters who still would have cast a vote for president, about 2-1 they would have chosen Trump over [Democratic presidential nominee Hillary] Clinton,” Devine told Newsweek. Though Devine said he was hesitant to make broad statements about a party that has a diverse makeup in terms of voter policy preferences, he said Libertarians tend to be motivated more by economic policy than by social issues, which translates to many leaning toward conservative candidates. Devine said it was too soon to project how Libertarian voters leaned during this election cycle, but if they had to choose between Democrats and Republicans, he guessed they would likely choose Republican candidates.
Like Devine, Lee believes that Libertarians are likely to lean toward conservative candidates when they do not vote with a third party. “They are often economically conservative but socially liberal,” Lee said, later clarifying that their social liberalism was less geared toward social justice issues and more toward “stay out of my life” policies, like legalizing marijuana.
“Overall, the balance would still lean toward the Republican Party. For the Libertarian Party, the economic issues are particularly important or salient for them—and on those issues they align more with the Republican side,” Lee said.
Some Libertarian voters may lean toward conservative candidates, but Devine said their participation in elections isn’t guaranteed if they are not excited about the options on the ballot. “If you’re able to statistically estimate based on other predictors of how people vote in the election, if it were not for having a Libertarian on the ballot, about half of them wouldn’t vote,” Devine said. “They don’t automatically still vote and then have to choose between the two major party candidates. Our estimates suggest about half of them wouldn’t vote for president, or at least not cast a major-party vote for president.”
But Devine said he does believe that votes for Jorgensen affected the shape of the presidential race in key battleground states this time around “just because the margins are so close.”
Devine pointed to Georgia, a state in which Biden was leading Trump by about 4,000 votes Friday night. Votes cast for Jorgensen in Georgia—more than 61,000—totaled about 15 times that gap.
“When you have a vote in a state that comes down to less than 1 percent, maybe even 0.2 or 0.3 percent, just about anything could make that difference,” Devine said.