2016 Election Observer: Sean Savage
Nicole Caratas | Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Editor’s Note: Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, The Observer will sit down with Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s experts to break down the election and its importance to students. In this 12th installment, Saint Mary’s Editor Nicole Caratas asks professor of political science and author Sean Savage about the significance of third-party candidates in this election.
Nicole Caratas: As a political science professor who has written on the presidency, what about this particular election has made it so different, allowing for third-party candidates to gain more visibility than in previous elections?
Sean Savage: One unique fact about the 2016 presidential election compared to previous, more recent presidential elections is that most voters dislike both major party nominees for president. In particular, Hillary Clinton consistently receives poor ratings in polls for being honest and trustworthy while Donald Trump receives poor ratings for his judgment, temperament and experience in government. This situation may lead more voters than usual to either not vote at all or to vote for a third-party nominee. We had a similar situation in 1992 when 19 percent of voters supported Ross Perot for president.
NC: What would it take for a third-party candidate to win this election? Is it possible for either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson to gain enough traction to affect the outcome of this election?
SS: It is very unlikely that a third-party nominee can win a presidential election. However, if the combined popular voters for Johnson and Stein average 12 to 15 percent nationally, with more than 15 percent for Johnson in a few states, then either Trump or Clinton could win the presidential election with an overwhelming majority of the Electoral College while only winning between 43 and 45 percent of the popular votes nationally. In 1992, Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the popular votes but about two-thirds of the Electoral College votes.
NC: When asked about the Syrian [refugee crisis], Gary Johnson recently answered with “What is Aleppo?” He later stated that when America involves itself militarily, we end up in worse situations. In a world that is so interconnected, what would be the impact of having a president who does not believe much in foreign policy? Does this undermine his perceived ability to govern America?
SS: If most Americans believe that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East should be active and interventionistic, then it would be detrimental for the U.S. to have a president with Gary Johnson’s ideology and limited, inadequate knowledge of foreign policy. However, he’s a libertarian, and most libertarian voters would agree with him that the U.S. should exert little or no military intervention abroad.
NC: Many people argue that a third-party candidate is the solution, and many others argue that this would split the vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. What is your take on this idea? Should people vote based on issues they believe in, or based on fear of someone they disagree with winning?
SS: Just as Americans have a secret ballot and the freedom, unlike voters in Australia, to choose not to vote, Americans vote for third-party and independent candidates for all types of reasons. The most common reason is dissatisfaction with the nominees and/or platforms of the two major parties.
NC: Turning it back to campus, what is the impact of an election with two third-party candidates on young people and voter turnout in that age group?
SS: I have been teaching at [the College] since 1990. I recall that students were very interested in the 1992 and 2008 presidential elections. Except for the Sanders campaign in the primaries and caucuses, they seem to especially lack interest in the 2016 presidential campaign. Voter turnout among young voters will probably be lower in the 2016 general election than it was in 2008 and 2012.