Political cartoon from June 28, 1912 in the Chicago Day Book

Don’t let that 9% figure scare you into the second coming of the Bull Moose Party

Warning to those who don’t care about the election (and maybe should, but that’s a different issue) this is a political post.

I’m sure many of you have seen the New York Times article by Alicia Parlapiano and Adam Pierce that was released today claiming that only 9% of Americans voted for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. The piece its self is a very well organized, logical and accurate analysis of the Republican and Democratic primary results earlier this year, but I have found that many people have used its conclusions to draw sharp criticism towards the nature in which the general election ballot was decided.

From the numerous #BernieorBust diehards on my Facebook news feed to Edward Snowden, many see this analysis as evidence supporting the rise of the third party and as a case against Clinton and Trump’s legitimacy as candidates. While I am by no means an avid statistician, I see ample cause for skepticism here.

Now before I dig myself too deep here, I should plainly state that I am not here to defend the obvious and blatantly undemocratic flaws of the primary system or two-party politics. I agree that a system that allows such a small portion of the public to decide on the top two candidates for president is something that should inspire immense caution in those two individuals’ ability to represent the populace as a whole.

Nevertheless, it is important to realize that as the plurality of party representation rises, the number of votes required to win decreases. Say, for example, Jill Stein collects a significant number of votes and significant portions of the Clinton and Trump camps split off and vote for the Green Party. This would mean that the winning candidate would not need to receive the majority popular vote (greater than 50%) to claim the election.

And while of course it’s impossible to directly compare the two events, the results of the 1912 General Election, when Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party sabotaged the electoral votes for Taft’s Republican ticket, allows us to imagine what the emergence of a three party system would look like in the United States. Wilson, on the Democratic ticket, claimed 6.3 million popular votes and 435 electoral votes, where as Roosevelt and Taft, who from a policy standpoint, were from the same party, together claimed 7.6 million popular votes. However, since Roosevelt introduced the Progressive Party and split the Republican vote, the two tickets only won a cumulative 96 electoral votes.

I’ll say it again. I am not defending the two party system. What I am arguing is that a statistic highlighting how a small minority can decide the fate of the country seems, to me at least, like more of an argument against a third party vote than for one.

Secondly is the question of candidate legitimacy. To truly measure the weight of the support behind either Clinton or Trump, it is necessary to draw a comparison to a general election ballot that did not seem to garner so much negative criticism. So let’s go back 8 years and see what Parlapiano and Pierce’s analysis would have said about the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain.

The total population of the United States in 2008 was 304 million.

9.9 million people voted for John McCain and over 11 million people voted for one of his five opponents during the Republican primaries.

17.6 million people voted for Barack Obama and over 19.1 million people voted for one of the seven people running against him in the Democratic primaries (Clinton beat Obama by just over 272,000 popular votes, but lost out on delegates).

This means that out of the 304 million people in the US, only 57.6 million voted in the primaries, and only 27.5 million voted for either of the candidates that would end up on the general election ticket.

And for those of you who’ve already done the math in their heads, you’ll find that, yep, only 9% of the population cast a vote to either Obama or McCain in the 2008 primaries.

So maybe this year’s election isn’t so much an outlier, but yet another data point in a continuous trend of antidemocratic elections.

Trust me, I get it. You look at a headline on the homepage of the New York Times telling you that a minority is leading the nation and it scares you. Yes it is scary and yes it is a problem.

But to say that these two candidates were not the true choice of the people or this particular election cycle is the epitome of American democracy’s decline is to hide yourself in ignorance of a much greater dilemma.

And I hate to tell ya, but it’s going to take a lot more than a few third party candidates to resolve it.

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