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Could US third party candidates play spoiler in presidential polls?

us presidential election Updated: Oct 06, 2016 19:09 IST
Kanak Gokarn
US presidential polls

File photo of Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa. Johnson had another self-described “Aleppo moment” after he couldn’t come up with a name when asked by a MSNBC host who his favourite foreign leader is.(AP)

With one candidate’s ignorance of foreign policy specifics and another’s outstanding arrest warrant, the odds aren’t looking very good for America’s third party presidential candidates.

Hopes were higher than usual for the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, the US’s third- and fourth-largest parties. The nature of the American electoral system itself places them at a disadvantage, but voters are clearly not satisfied with their current leaders.

Thus the success of outsider candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, running on platforms denouncing the “rigged” system and the influence of money on politics.

But the prospects of the Libertarian and Green Party don’t matter – what matters is their mere presence in the race.

The real concern is the “spoiler effect”. With a little more than a month to go for the November 8 election, the gap between the two major party candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, has witnessed ups and downs.

Johnson or Stein could siphon votes from these candidates but what is unclear is who would suffer more – will unsatisfied Republicans flock to Johnson? He shares many of their worries about “big government”. Or will disaffected Sanders supporters choose to support third parties?

Even a modest swing could cost either major party candidate a state. If Johnson or Stein manage to win even one state between them and no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the president would then have to be chosen by the House of Representatives.

Incidentally, Americans will also be electing all 435 members of the House of Representatives, 34 senators and 12 governors, among others, on November 8.

With the current political climate, the wider recognition of these third party candidates could have an effect down the ticket as well. If they are unwilling to cast their vote for a third party in the presidential election, the voters could be more willing to do so in congressional elections to register their disappointment.

A shift of voters to third party candidates could turn the tide of several close races and, say, deliver a majority in the US Senate to the Democratic Party. Although third parties have done poorly in recent years, this unusual election year could end up with an unusual outcome.