Where Independent Candidates Thrived

Kenton Tilford

Non-Clinton/Trump candidates surged most in areas with high levels of college graduates, the Mormon belt, the upper-Midwest, and parts of the Northeast. They surged least in the Deep South, some areas historically reliant on mining, and places where Ralph Nader was strong in 2000.

The 2016 election saw 6.01% of all votes cast for President go to candidates other than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump — over three times the 2012 figure (1.85%) and the most since 10.05% in 1996 (8.4% went to Reform Party candidate Ross Perot). A look at county-level results show that non-major party candidates thrived most in areas with high levels of college graduates and large Mormon populations.

Data centered at a 4.15% swing (the national swing from 2012–2016) — Oklahoma had no non-major party candidates on the ballot in 2012

Where non-major party candidates thrived

The single largest factor driving an increase in non-major party support was Mormon population. Despite receiving just 0.53% of the national popular vote, independent candidate Evan McMullin, a harsh Trump critic and practicing Mormon) garnered an impressive 21.3% of the vote in Utah (the most by a non-major party candidate in any state since 1992) and 6.7% of the vote in Idaho — coming primarily from heavily Mormon counties. The largest increase in non-major party support from any county came in Madison County, Idaho — an almost entirely Mormon county that voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by a 93.3%-5.8% margin. In 2016, Trump won 57% of the vote to Evan McMullin’s 29.8%, with Hillary Clinton in a distant 3rd with 7.66% of the vote.

While areas with high levels of college graduates generally saw Hillary Clinton improve over Barack Obama’s performance in 2012, they also saw a big increase in non-major party voters. Take Fairfield County, CT which gave Barack Obama a 55–44 victory over Mitt Romney. Clinton won the county 57–38, but the big increase in non-major party voters echoed trends seen around the country in places like Los Alamos County, NM (Gary Johnson’s best county with 14% of the vote) and Falls Church, VA (75% of adults have a degree and non-major party vote increased from 1.3% to 7.9%).

Some other quick highlights include:

  • The upper-Midwest and parts of the Northeast (what Colin Woodard would call ‘Yankeedom’ and ‘Midlands’) also saw a big jump in support for anyone but Clinton and Trump — especially in rural areas.
  • Bernie Sanders’ home state of Vermont gave him 5.7% of the vote, despite his absence from the ballot — explaining another big swing from 2012–2016.
  • Washington, Oregon, and California saw big increases in non-major party vote. Places where Green Party candidates have been historically popular (i.e. Humboldt County, CA) saw large numbers of defections — but much of this may be due to increased turnout from vote-by-mail elections in Washington and Oregon.
  • Counties with major universities tended to see a slightly higher than average swing (i.e. Monongalia County, WV, Boone County, MO, Centre County, PA, McLean County, IL)

Where non-major party candidates failed to capitalize

Reynolds County, Missouri — located in the Lead Belt of Southeastern Missouri — was one of the 44 counties to see a *lower* non-major party vote share than in 2012. While an extreme example, other counties located in areas historically reliant on mining experienced a smaller surge in non-major party vote share. Mingo County, West Virginia — located in the heart of coal country — saw the same share of non-major party votes in 2012 and 2016, despite the 4.15% increase nationwide increase (it should be noted that these counties also swung very heavily towards Donald Trump).

The Deep South has long been averse to non-major party candidates (since Republicans added Southern whites to their coalition in the late 1960’s) and this continued to be the case this year. Mississippi saw many of the counties with a smaller share of non-major party votes. Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia also increased by smaller amounts than the nation as a whole.


Not only did a large number of white voters cross party lines in 2016, but many opted for an independent or third party contender. These voters may prove to be more persuadable than usual for 2020 presidential candidates — particularly if a Democrat is able to approach Barack Obama’s success with downscale Northern whites and Bernie Sanders supporters.

Kenton Tilford

Written by

writer/organizer/person. get in touch @ tilford.lee@gmail.com

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