The Truth About Voting for a Third-Party Candidate

September 28th 2016

As we close in on Election Day, President Barack Obama is sending a message to voters flirting with the idea throwing their support behind third-party presidential candidates: a vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein is, in effect, "a vote for [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump."

gary-johnsonAP/John Raoux - apimages.com

But to what extent is that true? And is that message effective?

Polls show that third-party candidates are pulling sizeable support — especially from Millennial voters — and they're mostly pulling that support away from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, The Oregonian reported. (Hence the recent condemnation of the "protest vote" by people like President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

A recent Reuters-Ipsos poll found that Clinton leads Trump in a two-way matchup among likely voters by six points (44 to 38 percent.) But that lead narrows to four points when you give likely voters Johnson and Stein as options. That's consistent with polling since Sanders dropped out, and disaffected voters were left with two candidates that are viewed unfavorably by large portions of the voting public.

pollReuters/Ipsos - realclearpolitics.com

pollReuters/Ipsos - realclearpolitics.com

Still, it's unlikely that "protest votes" for third-party candidates will alter the outcome of the election Bill Schneider, a political analyst and professor at George Mason University, told ATTN:.

"They're pulling from both parties," Schneider said. "They both get protest votes from both candidates."

"There are a lot of Republicans and conservatives who are unhappy with Trump and a lot of liberals and Democrats who are unhappy with Clinton — and a lot of them have not the faintest idea who Gary Johnson is or what a Libertarian is," he added. "They just want to cast a protest vote. They want to make a statement with their vote."

Some third-party voters take issue with the characterization of their vote as a "protest vote." Schneider, however, disagrees:

"They don't have a chance to win. If one of the third-party candidates surges in the polls and looks like he or she has a chance to win, then it's rational to vote for them — if they have a chance to win. The only way you can tell that is from the polls and what the polls have been showing all year is that neither of them has a serious chance to win."

That said, it's not exactly fair to dismiss all third-party voters as politically alienated protestors.

After all, 11 percent of Americans identify as Libertarian and presumably hold socially liberal and economically conservative political views, FiveThirtyEight reported. So it's reasonable to assume that at least some third-party voters are sincere in their support for Johnson or Stein and are not simply protesting the major party nominees.

What does this election mean for the future of third parties?

America's "first-past-the-post" voting system — where voters elect candidates (rather than parties) who receive a plurality of votes — makes it difficult to elect third-party candidates. But given the growing political dissatisfaction that's emerged during this election, it's clear that there's a hunger for alternatives to Democratic and Republican candidates. Forty-three percent of Americans identified as politically independent in 2014, for example, and this election has highlighted the partisan frustrations that Johnson and Stein have capitalized on.

While third parties may not have their moment in this election, they're worth watching post-November.

RELATED: Good News for the Future for Third Parties

Share your opinion

Would you consider voting for a third-party candidate?

No 33%Yes 67%