Date
4 December 2016
Independent or small party candidates may not win elections in the US, but they can alter the outcome of the overall result. Photo: Xinhua
Independent or small party candidates may not win elections in the US, but they can alter the outcome of the overall result. Photo: Xinhua

Can a third party become viable in US politics?

The 2016 US presidential election may have been a grudge fight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but we can’t dismiss the influence of other independent candidates or candidates from small parties.

Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein from the Green Party, as well as the independent Evan McMullin, for example, have all put up a decent fight in the election, snapping up a total of 4.9 percent of the popular vote, compared to just 1.4 percent by such candidates in the 2008 election and 1.7 percent in the 2012 election.

Among them, McMullin managed to take a whopping 21 percent of the total votes in the state of Utah, the best ever result for any independent candidate in any state.

Although independent or small party candidates basically stand no chance of winning, the votes they snap up often allows them to play the role of a decisive minority and influence the outcome of the overall election.

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by just 537 votes in Florida. After the election many political analysts took the view that Gore would have become the president had it not been for Ralph Nader, the candidate representing the Green Party, who took a substantial number of leftist votes in that swing state which could otherwise have gone to Gore.

In this year’s election, Trump only managed to beat Clinton by a razor-thin margin in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida, not least because the independent and small party candidates have taken a significant portion of the votes which could otherwise have gone to him.

Given this, can people still say that independent and small party candidates are yet to come of age and become major competitors in their own right in a US presidential election?

Well, the theory is open to question, as we should bear in mind that Trump himself was indeed much more like an independent candidate than a Republican nominee.

In fact Trump has been at odds with the Republican mainstream for a long time, with several party heavyweights dissociating themselves from him throughout his campaign.

However, even though Trump had a lot of differences with the Republican leaders, he still chose to represent the GOP because he was well aware that independent candidates have no chance of winning whatsoever, and for that reason he had to hijack the Republican platform.

In other words, Trump is a Republican in name only, and it remains highly doubtful whether he would be able to settle his differences with the GOP leadership after he takes office.

As a matter of fact, there have been calls over the years for abolishing the “winner takes all” rule in the US presidential election so as to give independent or small party candidates a better chance.

The question is, as the person who benefited most from the Electoral College system, will Trump be in any mood to initiate such drastic reform?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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AL/DY/RC

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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