Strong third-party candidate for U.S. president rattles nervous anti-Trumpers: Keith Boag

One can imagine Democrats have greeted the news of Justin Amash's third-party presidential run with concern, believing they've already suffered through one third-party nightmare in the last presidential election and don't need another, writes Keith Boag.

Michigan congressman Justin Amash has hinted at running for president

Michigan congressman Justin Amash left the Republican Party and is now embarking on a third-party run for the U.S. presidency in November. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

When news broke that Michigan congressman Justin Amash, an Independent, might suit up for the U.S. presidential race this year, a Never Trump Republican pundit, Tim Miller, fired off a dispirited tweet: "They are popping champagne in Trump Tower."

A former Republican campaign operative, Miller says he loves Amash and would happily cheer his run for the presidency some other time, but not now. 

Miller is all in for Democrat Joe Biden, the former vice-president and presumptive nominee in November.

Miller summed up his thoughts in a post on the conservative Donald Trump resistance site The Bulwark co-authored with publisher Sarah Longwell. They asked Amash to stand down.

"Could we be certain that a third-party campaign from a Constitutional conservative would not get Trump re-elected?" they asked. "The answer, unfortunately, is no."

One can imagine Democrats all over the U.S. greeted the Amash news with similar trepidation — heavy sighs, anxious bites of the lower lip — believing they already suffered through one third-party nightmare in the 2016 presidential election and don't need another.

Suspicion of third-party runs

A big reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, goes a popular theory, is that she bled support to third-party candidates — mainly, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein — in the three states that Donald Trump took by a whisker (a combined 77,000 votes) to win the electoral college and the presidency, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Some observers believe Amash's run is a gift to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, because it could bleed votes from the Democrats. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There's some evidence to back the theory but not enough to prove it. The last election was not an outstanding year for "also-rans," but they still won more than five per cent of the popular vote in an election with a razor-thin result. 

If Amash can repeat that, and the race is narrow, he might be the spoiler who helps Trump to squeak back into the White House for another four years.

But that's an enormous "if" in a political environment where since 2017, waves of anti-Trump voters have shown a single-minded determination to vote against Republicans in state and congressional elections.

Amash was elected to Congress in 2010 as a small-government Tea Party Republican from Michigan and re-elected four times after that. 

But he only began seeing his name in lights after he started publicly criticizing President Trump. 

Amash once called him a "childish bully." He quit the Republican Party in 2019 to sit as an Independent and eventually cast a vote in favour of Trump's impeachment. 

A Libertarian candidate

Last week, Amash announced that he's switching again, from Independent to Libertarian this time, and will seek that party's nomination for president in a few weeks. 

It's not a perfect fit. For example, Amash is steadfastly anti-abortion while the Libertarian platform says it's none of their business.

Amash, who got into Congress thanks in large part to his standing with small-government Tea Party Republicans, voted in favour of Trump's impeachment last year. (Carly Geraci/Kalamazoo Gazette via AP)

But he knows if he's the Libertarian nominee, that's likely to get him registered for the ballot in all 50 states — a milestone qualification for any third-party candidate.

What's in it for the Libertarians is that Amash is light-years closer to something like a household name than anyone else who is interested in leading them. 

Still, Amash will remain a long shot with no realistic chance of winning the White House, and that's what annoys the Democrats and anti-Trumpers like Miller. They see Amash diverting votes from Biden, with no real benefit to anyone but Trump. 

Miller posted some statistics in the Bulwark column that showed the combined votes of conservative third-party presidential candidates in 2016 for Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — votes that Miller believes could have gone to Clinton. In each state, the totals of those third-party votes vastly outnumbered Trump's margin of victory. In other words, they were decisive then and could be again in 2020 — or so it seems to Miller.

Reliable scapegoats

The inconvenient truth is that both Democrats and Republicans routinely blame third parties for upending close elections whenever they lose one they think they should have won.

In 1992, businessman Ross Perot ran one of the most successful third-party campaigns in U.S. history. He got 19 per cent of the popular vote, but nothing in the electoral college, and Republican George H. W. Bush lost the election to Democrat Bill Clinton.

Bush's deputy campaign manager, Mary Matalin, has said she "will go to my grave" believing that Perot's campaign cost Bush the presidency.

Her husband, James Carville, who was coincidentally Clinton's 1992 campaign consultant, has dismissed his wife's argument as "supported by everything but evidence." Indeed, subsequent investigations show Perot drew votes from both Bush and Clinton, with no impact on the final result.

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is seen by many as a spoiler who helped get George W. Bush elected in 2000. (Rick Bowner/Associated Press)

Former vice-president Al Gore lost the 2000 election, which was settled after a historically messed-up ballot-counting battle in Florida that Republican George W. Bush won by a measly 537 votes.

There were half a dozen also-rans on the ballot in Florida who racked up more votes than Bush's winning margin, including Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who got nearly 100,000 of them. 

Nader has pushed back against allegations that his campaign effectively elected Bush, saying that Gore wouldn't have needed to win Florida if he'd just carried the state he was born in, Tennessee — which, embarrassingly for Gore, is true. 

The hometown advantage

A presidential candidate losing on his home turf isn't really all that rare — Donald Trump did it most recently. But the perceived hometown advantage is also part of the calculus that's shaking the knees of those fretting over Amash's candidacy this year.

Here's why: Amash is from Michigan, and would normally be expected to do well there. Michigan is likely to be a must-win state for both presidential candidates this year, so some Democrats reckon the biggest danger of Amash on the ballot is that he will cut into their crucial Michigan vote.

He won't, or at least not by much, according to Richard Czuba, a nonpartisan Michigan pollster. He said there are more powerful forces at work in 2020 than there were in 2016.

"The big question to ask: 'Does Amash make any difference if Democratic motivation is as high as it appears to be?" Czuba told the New York Times. "I don't think it does." 

WATCH | Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden: 'I wish you were president right now'

Clinton: 'I wish you were president right now'

4 years ago
Duration 1:39
Featured VideoFormer U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton endorses Joe Biden.

As Biden rolled over Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign in the Democratic primaries this spring, evidence piled up that Sanders had benefited significantly in the 2016 primaries from antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. Trump, presumably, had the same anti-Clinton advantage in the general election.

Without Clinton on the ballot this year, Trump no longer wins what Republicans in 2016 wryly dubbed the "double hater" vote — a small but important slice of the public that dislikes both presidential candidates, but grudgingly settled for Trump as the lesser evil. 

At the moment, deep data from a recent NBC poll reportedly has Biden sweeping the double haters by a hefty 50 points

It seems likely, then, that what matters in 2020 is less whether Justin Amash is on the presidential ballot as a Libertarian than the fact that Hillary Clinton isn't on the ballot at all.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.