Sam Hodgson / The New York Times

Some Cornellians argue that votes for third-party candidates, such as Gary Johnson, swayed the election in Donald Trump’s favor.

November 13, 2016

Cornell Democrats, Republicans Debate Impact of Third-Party Votes

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The 2016 presidential election’s unprecedented levels of voter dissatisfaction prompted many voters to support third party candidates who would not have gained significant traction in other years.

The New York Times exit polls reported that neither major party candidate reached a 50 percent favorability rating; 18 percent of voters did not have a favorable view of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, according to Fox News exit polls. Tellingly, The Times reported that close to four in 10 voters said they would be afraid for the country if Donald Trump was elected; three in 10 were wary of a Clinton presidency.

The Cornell Republicans — who made headlines in September by breaking party lines to endorse Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson — maintained their support of the candidate despite criticism that said their support swayed the election in Trump’s favor.

“Given the outcome in swing states, it would appear that independent voters have become very frustrated with the Washington elites, particularly establishment Democrats,” said David Navadeh ’19, the group’s second vice chairman. “On Election Day, independent voters banded together with Republicans and many Democrats alike and rejected an essential third term for Obama.”

Cornell Republicans Chair Olivia Corn ’19 added that third-party candidacies were “especially important in this election, where both main party candidates were subpar,” echoing the exit poll findings of voter dissatisfaction.

However, in the end leading third-party candidates underperformed — Johnson received only three percent of the national popular vote and Green Party candidate Jill Stein earned only one percent.

Still, many question the role role third-party candidates played in Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, as swing state elections were so tight. Johnson won just two percent of Florida, amounting to 206,007 votes, but Trump topped Clinton by just shy of 120,000 votes.

“It is frustrating to learn that the number of votes for Jill Stein made up the difference between Clinton and Trump in Michigan and Wisconsin,” said Kevin Kowalewski ’17, President of Cornell Democrats. “In an election as important as this one, we believe that citizens had a responsibility to use their vote to stop Trump.”

Considering Clinton won the national popular vote, Kowalewski reasoned that “third party votes further obscured the fact that most voters did not choose Trump.” Navadeh also reasoned that votes for Johnson were cast by more potential Clinton voters than Trump voters.

However, Corn said she believes the votes were justified, as many came from “disillusioned Republicans looking for the option that wasn’t Donald Trump.”

Cole Stefan ’18, treasurer of Cornell Republicans, pointed out that because third-party voters often say they feel failed by the two major parties, “they might not have voted at all because they would have been forced to choose someone they didn’t like.” He also stressed that Clinton only gained 47 percent of the vote in Michigan — which swung toward Trump Tuesday night — while Obama had 54 percent in 2012.

“It was her failure to connect with working class voters in this state that lost her the election,” Stefan said. “These voters went elsewhere. Period. It doesn’t matter if they went to Trump or a third party, all that matters is that they left Hillary.”

Even if third party voters were forced to choose between Trump and Clinton, Navadeh said he “[does not] think it was enough to sway the election, particularly since Trump is far above the 270 threshold by many states.”

Corn agreed, saying it is “dangerous to continue the narrative” that the election outcome might have differed without third-party votes.

The exit poll numbers agree. Of the voters with unfavorable opinions of both Trump and Clinton, nearly half voted for Trump, according to Fox News.

According to additional Fox News exit polls, third-party candidates only captured six percent of the vote of those with unfavorable opinions of Clinton and also six percent of the vote of those with unfavorable opinions of Trump.

Gunjan Hooja ’17, vice president of Cornell Democrats, said that third party voting was “not the only problem,” but that election results can also be attributed to low voter turnout in young voters.

“We need to make sure that young people understand just how important it is to participate in the political process,” Hooja said. “With the potential dangers of a Trump presidency, we hope this moment will clarify the urgent need for civic engagement and electoral participation.”