For all the arguing and analyzing and prognosticating about the 2020 presidential race I am surprised how little attention has been given to what may or I think likely will play the biggest role in the outcome: third party candidates.
One of the truths about the 2016 election is that Donald Trump didn’t do any better in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012 if you’re looking at the percentage of total votes cast. Indeed, he did significantly worse. Romney won 47.2% of the national vote while Trump won 46.1%. Electoral votes count, not popular votes. And that was Trump’s critical advantage. But it’s really the unusually high 5.7% of the vote going to three third party candidates — Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Evan McMullin — that made it possible for Trump to win as a minority candidate.
As we’ve seen both before his election and since, Trump is a minority candidate, essentially a factional leader, who has incredibly durable support of between 35% and 45% of the population. He really, really needs the presence of spoiler candidates to pull the contest down into the mid-40s where it was in 2016. I’d never say never. But I think there’s a good argument that a significant third party/spoiler candidacy — or ideally more than one — are the necessary predicate of Trump’s reelection.
People probably think mostly of a third party left candidate like Jill Stein. But just as plausible and just as dangerous is a “center” candidate like Starbucks baron Howard Schultz wanted to be. Stein-type candidates could flourish with a Biden ticket and a Bloomberg or Schultz type could with a Sanders or Warren one.
Ideally for Trump you’d have both — a billionaire centrist to peel off preenish Never Trumpers who don’t want higher taxes and a Jill Stein wrecker-type candidate to peel off purism voters on the left. Yes, the Electoral College is a big deal. But third party candidates are what make an Electoral College victory at roughly 45% of the vote plausible.
How to combat this isn’t that obvious. Party unity is the answer of course. But saying it isn’t a strategy. Where we should focus attention is on the idea that the Trump team undoubtedly knows all this too. So Trump and his reelection team will do everything legitimate and probably illegitimate to get strong third party contenders into the race. I would assume Russian efforts in 2020 will focus on this too.
I don’t have a great answer to what Democrats do about this. But it needs a lot more focus than it is currently getting. Because there’s every reason to believe it will be of decisive importance for the outcome.