Did Third Party voters swing the election?

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, I saw a wave of accusations against third party voters, and Jill Stein voters in particular. Comparisons to Ralph Nader’s much discussed role in the 2000 elections were rampant. These accusations quickly expanded from social media into several mainstream media outlets. Steve Bennen, writing for MSNBC, employed some questionable math to assert that Stein and Gary Johnson had thrown the election to Trump. After privately criticizing the article I applied some grade school math to publicly available sources to arrive at my own answer.


For this thought experiment I used data from a variety of sources. This article (although oddly not CBS’ tabulation of exit polls) provided a breakdown of third party responses to exit polling about a potential two party race. Hillary Clinton would, if the survey have been trusted, picked up about thirty percent of Johnson voters and twenty two percent of Stein voters. Trump, meanwhile would have picked up fifteen percent of Johnson voters and fourteen percent of Stein voters. The rest, a significant majority of both groups, would have stayed home.

Armed with this information, and the NYT voting totals, I was ready to figure out the results of a two party race. Specifically, I looked at the states that Trump flipped versus the 2012 election (Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida) as well as Michigan, which Clinton very narrowly failed to flip. In each state, I used the total number of voters for Johnson and Stein respectively and the percentages from the exit polling to work out Clinton’s gains in a two party race versus the margin by which she lost the state. My results looked like this:

Pictured: Clinton still losing

In my adjusted two party race, Clinton won Michigan by 18,000 votes, about the margin that Trump won the state by in the real election. In Iowa and Ohio, she lost badly enough that even getting every third party voter on board would not have won the state for her. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida, she narrowed Trump’s margin of victory to 43,000 votes (0.24%), 
5,000 votes (0.17%) and 84,000 votes (0.78%) respectively. This result would have given Clinton 248 electoral votes, leaving her twenty two short of victory. Therefore, based on the data available to me, I conclude that Clinton would have lost a two candidate race. In other words, third party votes did not play a “spoiling” role in this election nationally.

First and foremost, the conclusion here is that Democrats are barking up the wrong tree when they blame third party voters for Clinton’s defeat. Still, there is something to be learned from their support among third parties. It was revealing to learn that Clinton did better with Johnson voters than Stein voters. The fact that she got more support among the party of unrestrained capitalism and minimal government than the party of moderate social democracy and environmental protection is indicative of the Clinton campaign’s overall weakness. As I argued in my previous piece, the election was determined largely by the Democratic party’s weak economic agenda and lack of populist energy. In this light, the crossover between Johnson voters and Clinton voters is truly troubling. A libertarian presidency would of course be disastrous for the working classes in this country, and any serious candidate of left populism would propose policies that would be anathema to libertarians. Instead, Democrats continued to support neoliberal trade regimes, minimal social reforms, and essentially the continued theft from the working classes to subsidize the already wealthy. This should be no surprise to a student of political history, as this is the essential economic platform of the Democratic party since Bill Clinton’s era. If I was a Democrat, I would be focused on replacing this economic platform. I would be focused on issues like mass voter suppression in North Carolina, which resulted from Democratic weakness in state legislatures across the country. I would, in general, be more focused on the weaknesses of the party as it stands than slinging false accusations against third party candidates and voters.