A failure to vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Hillary Clinton, and a failure to vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Donald Trump. So partisans will tell you, and they are probably correct.
Of the many third party candidates on offer, three stand out for having the most ballot access and therefore the best chance of victory, “best” understood as more than zero.
The two major third parties nominated the same two candidates in 2012 and 2016 — Gary Johnson, the Libertarian, got .99 percent of the vote in 2012, and Jill Stein the Green Party candidate, got .36 percent. Both are likely to do better this time because both the Democratic and Republican candidates are as unpopular as any candidate could be and still get nominated.
Another third-party candidate is Evan McMullin, who is running as an independent. He is on the ballot in 11 states and has write-in status in 19 more. He is coming at Clinton and Trump—mostly Trump—from the right. He isn’t polling well at all, but he, oddly, has the best chance of the three of getting to the White House. It’s the longest of longshots, but it exists.
McMullin is plausible in one scenario. If Trump and Clinton battle to an Electoral College draw, the election will go to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. McMullin claims, correctly, that he is more of a Republican than Trump.
McMullin is a Mormon, a graduate of Brigham Young University and the Wharton School of Business. He has worked for the investment bank behemoth Goldman, Sachs, and for the CIA. His last gig before running for president was chief policy director of the House Republican Conference. From 2013 to 2015, he advised the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He has many friends and supporters in the House.
He selected as his running mate Mindy Finn, a businesswoman and founder of a nonprofit called Empowered Women. She earned a Bachelor’s in Journalism from Boston University and a Master’s in Political Management from George Washington University.
Many Indians will find it significant that McMullin has been endorsed by the most rabid Indian fighter in modern times, Slade Gorton, who lost his senate seat when all the Indian tribes in Washington united behind Maria Cantwell. Sen. Cantwell won a squeaker in 2000 after a recount.
It did not help Gorton that the Sierra Club gave him an “environmental batting average” of zero and the League of Conservation Voters named him one of their “Dirty Dozen.” Opponents of the Crown Jewel open pit gold mine in Okanogan County, Washington were defeated when Gorton amended a “must pass” appropriations bill to authorize the project. Opponents of open pit pollution dubbed him “Cyanide Slade,” for the most common poison in gold mine waste.
The Green Party candidate is Dr. Jill Stein. She got her B.A., magna cum laude, and her M.D. from Harvard. She is a perennial Green candidate for various offices and once prevailed in an election to the Lexington, Massachusetts town meeting. A common criticism of Dr. Stein is science denial—not just her flirtations with anti-vaccination activists and homeopathy, but rather denial of political science.
Stein is a “non-politician,” like Trump. Those who think it’s a qualification to be POTUS that the candidate is “not a politician” show as much disregard for history as they do for political science.
Stein is on the correct side of most issues Indians believe important—sovereignty, the environment, education, Indian Health Service---but there is no reason, based on her education or experience, to believe she can get policy from her head into the law books.
Stein’s VP choice, Ajamu Baraka, does not list his alma mater. Tertiary sources indicate he attended C.C.N.Y. and Clark Atlanta University graduate school, but I’ve been unable to determine what he studied and whether he graduated.
Baraka holds views that are too far outside the mainstream for a serious candidate. Jimmy Carter has been accused of being “anti-Israel” because he’s willing to call out either side in the Middle East, but Baraka does not even pretend even-handedness. If Israel did it, then it was wrong.
He has also bought into enough conspiracy theories to give Trump a run for his money. He favors abolishing prisons, as do a tiny group of radical criminologists, none of whom are running for VP.
There’s more, but it would begin to feel like piling on.
Early in the election cycle, the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld appeared to be as viable as third parties get. Johnson earned a B.S. in political science from the University of New Mexico. As governor, he vetoed more legislation that all the other governors in the country combined. Hostile to spending, he still managed to raise New Mexico’s outlay for education by about a third. When that produced no rise in test scores, he took up for school vouchers in his second term.
Johnson’s VP pick, Bill Weld, earned an A.B., summa cum laude, from Harvard College, studied economics at University College, Oxford and then got his J.D., cum laude, from Harvard.
He started out in a gig beside Hillary Rodham, counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate impeachment inquiry. President Reagan later appointed him U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, where he convicted Boston Mayor Kevin White and others on corruption charges.
Elected governor of Massachusetts following Michael Dukakis, Weld earned a reputation for fiscal restraint. Of note because of the nasty turn of U.S. politics, when Weld ran for the senate against John Kerry the two of them had a major outbreak of civility. They agreed to spending limits and a debate schedule.
After he lost his senate run, the Republican governor was tapped by Bill Clinton to be Ambassador to Mexico. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman and political troglodyte Jesse Helms bottled the nomination in committee because of Weld’s views on gay rights, abortion and medical marijuana.
Returning to the private sector, Weld practiced law and ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York as a Libertarian after coming up short for the Republican nomination.
The Johnson/Weld ticket is a bit light on foreign policy but not as light as Trump/Pence. Johnson and Weld were both successful governors of very different states. Their policy ideas make them social liberals and fiscal conservatives, unacceptable to today's Republican Party but not to Democrats and Independents.
Johnson has a sense of humor and seems fearless. Asked about marijuana use, he promised to abstain while campaigning for POTUS and reminded voters of Bill Clinton’s claim that he “never inhaled,” responding, “I never exhaled!”
Then Johnson hit the campaign trail and quickly proved that he was more than just a little light on foreign policy. "What is Aleppo?" began trending online after his frank answer to Mike Barnicle’s question of what—in light of his Libertarian isolationism—he proposed to do about Aleppo?
What became known as Johnson’s “Aleppo moment” got worse when, a couple of weeks later, he was asked to name one foreign leader he admires.
That was no more a “gotcha” than Katie Couric’s innocent question to Sarah Palin about what she read, but it had a similar result. Not only could he not name a foreign leader he admired, he could not name a foreign leader at all. Weld bailed out his running mate by mentioning Angela Merkel.
Johnson did say he admires one of the former Mexican presidents, but he could not remember which one. My best guess is Vicente Fox, either because Fox was the first modern Mexican president not affiliated with the corrupt Partido Revolucionario Institucional or because Fox had recently hammered Trump about his border wall.
A month from Election Day, the Johnson/Weld ticket has not been near the 15 percent support required to get on the debate stage with Trump and Clinton. Johnson said from the beginning his only chance was to get in the debate.
Johnson has begun a social media campaign to elbow into the last debate, #LetGaryDebate. His best argument is that The Chicago Tribune recently published his 11th major newspaper endorsement and Trump has none.
Stein/Baraka have remained south of double digits in national polling. People voting in the three states where Stein/Baraka are not certified as write-ins should remember that in the Electoral College system the votes do not really go to candidates. The votes go to slates of electors pledged to the candidates, and there are no such slates for Stein/Baraka in Oklahoma, South Dakota or Nevada.
McMullin has not cracked double digits nationally. He has nothing going for him but a remotely plausible path to winning.
There is one reason to cast a vote for a third party not related to this year’s crop of candidates. In those states where the Green or Libertarian parties have access to the ballot, there is usually a percentage of the vote totals they need to get in order to have ballot access next time without having to circulate a petition. Direct impact on the 2016 elections, however, will be limited to whether the U.S. elects the first woman POTUS or the first reality TV star.