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Could Third-Party Candidates Impact The November Election?


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The porcupine is often associated with the Libertarian Party. According to the Libertarian Party of Orange County, the symbol was designed by Kevin Breen in 2006. It is meant to be similar to the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. The official symbol of the party is the Statue of Liberty.

For voters, the biggest box to check off this election will be for former Vice President Joe Biden or President Donald Trump, but how do third-party candidates fare in a two-party system?   

Dan Lee’s a professor of political science at UNLV. He focuses on two-party systems and how the electoral rules benefit only Democrat and Republican Parties  

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Lee explained that one of the reasons a third-party candidate doesn't usually gain much traction is because of how the electoral system is set up in the U.S.

It is a winner-take-all system, which means a candidate who comes in second or third gets nothing.

Unlike parliamentary systems like in Canada and many European Countries, where seats in parliament are allotted based on a proportion of the vote, which means even a small party that gets a small portion of the vote can get a seat in the government.

With a winner-take-all system, people often don't want to 'waste' their vote by voting for a candidate they know cannot win. Instead, they'll vote for one of the two major candidates, even if they don't agree with them completely.

Even with that, third-parties and their candidates have influenced elections, Lee said.

For instance, in the 90s, third-party candidate Ross Perot got 20 percent of the national vote and made impacts on the direction of the Republican Party.

"One big impact that third parties have is just bringing up some issue that they feel, that their followers feel, are being ignored by the major parties," Lee said, "What ends up happening is that the major parties, seeing that there is some support for those policies, end up co-opting those issues."

Lee said the same thing has happened with Bernie Sanders, who has always run as an independent, and the Democratic party. The support the senator has received has pushed the party to the left.

"He kind of highlights an important point in thinking about third-party candidates it's not so much whether they actually win elections... a big influence they have is just influencing the major parties," Lee said.

Besides pushing the agendas of the major parties, third-party candidates can siphon off votes from the major candidates in a way that can influence a race.

Lee said that is called a 'spoiler candidacy,' meaning someone who can spoil the efforts of a major candidate by taking away votes.

He said the 2016 election is a good example of the concept.  

In 2016, a lot of people were dissatisfied with both Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, which could have opened a door for a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson, who was the Libertarian Party candidate for president. 

"Why did not more support Gary Johnson? Because they did not want to lead to that spoiler outcome," Lee said, "They didn't want to 'waste' their votes on Gary Johnson, which is, essentially, a vote for Clinton in Nevada in 2016."

Lee said people considering casting a ballot for a third-party candidate got 'cold feet' as the 2016 presidential election wore on because they didn't want to siphon away votes from Donald Trump. 

Nevada is one of the only states that allows voters to choose 'None of the Above' on their ballot. Lee said making a decision to choose that option, leave a race blank or choose a third-party candidate, who is unlikely to win, is the prerogative of the individual voter.

"All of those choices are valid choices," he said, "All of those three things are a way of basically showing your dissatisfaction with the two major parties. Another term you sometimes hear... a protest vote. You're protesting against the two major parties."

Lee said that although a protest vote may not enact change in an election it can impact future elections and the parties' agendas.

There are critics who say the two-party system is failing America. Lee disagreed. He said it is actually a flexible system because pressure from outside the mainstream of the party is still effective.

"In a lot of ways, looking at these conflicts with the parties, and the parties having to come to grips with that conflict to try to force compromises within the party," he said. "That is evidence of how the two-party system can work."


Dan Lee, political science professor, UNLV 

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