Shades of Ralph Nader: Did Gary Johnson and Jill Stein tip the 2016 U.S. election?

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, the respective candidates of the Libertarian and Green parties, combined for enough votes to make the difference for Hillary Clinton. But unlike Ralph Nader and George W. Bush in 2000, the numbers don't back up blaming Johnson and Stein for Donald Trump.

Libertarian and Green candidates are being blamed for Trump's election win. Is that fair?

Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein together took more than four per cent of the vote. (Associated Press)

The parallels between the U.S. elections of 2000 and 2016 are striking. A candidate seeking a third consecutive term in the White House for the Democratic Party narrowly wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College to the Republican nominee, while a third-party candidate takes a significant and potentially decisive share of the vote.

Does that make Gary Johnson and Jill Stein the 2016 equivalent of Ralph Nader?

In 2000, George W. Bush won the election against Al Gore, despite losing the popular vote by half a percentage point. That is because he won the Electoral College, thanks in part to wins in Florida and New Hampshire. In both of those states, the total number of votes cast for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was greater than the margin between Bush and Gore.

If forced to choose between the two, more of Nader's supporters would have voted for the Democrat. In Florida, Gore needed only 538 of Nader's nearly 100,000 votes to beat Bush.

Ever since, Nader has denied that he cost the Democrats the election. Johnson and Stein, this year's Libertarian and Green candidates, might have to do the same for the rest of their lives.

In five states, the margin of victory between Trump and Clinton was smaller than the number of votes cast for Johnson and Stein:

  • Michigan: Clinton lost by about 11,800 votes. She would have won with just 23 per cent of Stein's votes or seven per cent of Johnson's.
  • Wisconsin: Clinton lost by about 27,300 votes, representing 88 per cent of Stein's support or 26 per cent of Johnson's.
  • Pennsylvania: A combination of Stein's votes and at least 14 per cent of Johnson's would have overcome Trump's 68,200 margin of victory, or 48 per cent of Johnson's vote alone.
  • Arizona: All of Stein's votes and at least 81 per cent of Johnson's vote would have bridged the 84,500-vote gap between Trump and Clinton.
  • Florida: Clinton lost the state that cost Gore the presidency by about 119,800 votes. All of Stein's votes plus 27 per cent of Johnson's would have given her the state, or 58 per cent of Johnson's votes alone.

Clinton came up short by 38 Electoral College votes on Tuesday. Combined, these states were worth 96 electoral votes.

You can't always get what you want

Throughout the campaign, Johnson and Stein's supporters made it clear they were voting for these two candidates because they believed in their positions, or couldn't stomach the alternatives.

But Libertarians who believe in free trade now have a president who wants to renegotiate or rip up NAFTA, while Greens who want action on climate change now have a president who has called climate change a hoax.

Supporters of third-party candidates preferred Clinton over Trump, however. A YouGov poll suggests that 26 per cent of them preferred a Clinton presidency with a Republican-controlled Congress, while another 12 per cent preferred Democratic control of both Congress and the White House. Just 17 per cent preferred a Trump presidency.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson greets people at his election night party on Nov. 8 in Albuquerque, N.M. (Juan Labreche/Associated Press)

A McClatchy/Marist poll suggests that 64 per cent of third-party supporters believed it would make a big difference if Clinton or Trump won the election. They had overwhelmingly unfavourable views of both candidates, but were more likely to see Clinton favourably than Trump.

They were also more likely to head to the voting booths believing that Clinton would win. The poll suggests that just nine per cent of these voters thought Trump would be the president after all the ballots were counted.

We can only guess how they would have behaved had more of them expected Trump to win.

Johnson + Stein ≠ Nader

Exit polling in 2000 suggested that 47 per cent of Nader's voters would have cast their ballot for Gore had they been forced to choose between the two major candidates. Just 21 per cent would have voted for Bush. That would have given Florida (and thus the election) to Gore.

But on Tuesday, exit polls suggest that about 25 per cent of Johnson and Stein's voters would have cast a ballot for Clinton if forced to choose between her and Trump, while 15 per cent would have voted for the Republican. The remainder would have stayed home.

Based on these numbers, the math does not back up any argument that Johnson and Stein are this year's Ralph Nader.

If we give 25 per cent of Johnson and Stein's voters to Clinton, 15 per cent to Trump and assume the rest do not vote, only Michigan flips over to Clinton. She wins it by about 11,000 votes. But she would have still lost Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida — the last by about 93,000 votes.

Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, seen here campaigning in the 2000 U.S. election, has been blamed by Democrats for handing the election to George W. Bush and changing history. (Michael Smith/Newsmakers)

Of course, we can only speculate what a full campaign would have looked like without Johnson and Stein arguing that Clinton and Trump were not worthy of a vote. Perhaps more of the abstainers in the exit poll would have voted in such a scenario.

What we do know for certain, however, is that Clinton would have won if only a few more Democrats had turned out. Clinton received about six million votes fewer than Barack Obama did four years ago. 

Just two per cent of those votes, cast in the right states, would have won her the election.

So when it comes to Johnson and Stein, if the Democrats want to do any finger-pointing they should probably do it in front of a mirror.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.