If Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein wins 5% of the popular vote in the 2016 election, the party will be eligible for millions of dollars in federal matching funds for a 2020 presidential campaign. The Green Party has strategically justified every fringe/spoiler presidential campaigns it has run since 1996 in part by talking up the possibility of winning 5% of the popular vote. What the Green Party has never done is develop a hard-headed assessment of whether it is even possible for their candidates to reach the 5% threshold despite failing to do so five presidential cycles in a row.
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The Green Party’s best result came in 2000 when they put long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader on the Green ticket for the second time. In that election, Nader got just under 3.0% of the vote, three times what he got in 1996. A geographic breakdown of Nader’s 2000 vote shows that he got over 5% of the popular vote only in so-called safe states – that is, states where the Democratic Party’s Al Gore or the Republican Party’s George W. Bush won by a large margin (5% or more).
Look at New Hampshire’s 2000 results. Bush won the state’s all 4 of the state’s electoral votes even though Gore and Nader combined had a majority of the vote; the right-wing candidate won even though left-liberal candidates had majority support. This is exactly what people like Bernie Sanders are talking about when they decry the spoiler effect. America’s presidential winner-take-all electoral college and first-past-the-post vote counting system combined at the presidential level give third parties the power to tip the outcome of the electoral college struggle between the two major parties one way or the other. So small parties can make a big – nay, ‘YOOJ’ – difference in this struggle even though they themselves cannot win the presidency by accumulating 270 electoral votes. “Spoiler” is therefore the best descriptive term for the strategic role third parties can and sometimes do play in U.S. presidential elections.
Splitting New Hampshire’s left-liberal vote between two candidates instead of keeping that vote united behind one candidate allowed Bush to win the state and with it, the presidency. The same principle was at work in Florida where Nader got only 1.6% of the popular vote. Florida’s left-liberal vote was clearly greater than the Republican vote and yet Bush won because the left-liberal vote was split between Nader and Gore while the right’s vote was united.
The ultimate result of the 2000 presidential election – the election of George W. Bush – was a complete catastrophe for the Green Party. Popular support for the Green Party collapsed subsequently never to recover and the Green Party’s thinning ranks divided into hostile camps.
In the run up to the 2004 election, a faction of the Green Party determined not to run a 2000-style 50-state presidential campaign exploited the party’s undemocratic structure to rob Nader of the nomination even though he had something like 87% of the vote. Instead, David Cobb was nominated because he vowed to run only in safe states to avoid spoiling the election for Bush. Denied the Green Party nomination, Nader ran as an independent and on the anti-immigrant Reform Party’s ballot line.
In the 2004 election, Nader won 0.38% of the popular vote while Cobb won 0.10%. Nader’s best result was in the safe state of Alaska with 1.62% of the vote while Cobb’s best result was 0.61% in the safe state of Connecticut.
To put it another way, over 99% of the electorate voted against both safe state and 50 state third-party/independent presidential strategies in 2004.
In 2008, Nader ran again as an independent and the Green Party again picked someone other than Nader as their nominee and both got results almost identical to those of 2004: 0.56% and 0.12%, respectively. Once again, Nader’s best results were in safe states. He cleared 1.0% of the vote (but not by much) in 12 states. Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney’s best results were also – again – in safe states but she failed to win 0.5% even in her best state.
In 2012, the Green Party nominated Jill Stein as their presidential candidate and she received 0.36% of the popular vote. She got more than 1.0% of the vote in only two states, Maine and Oregon, both of them safe states and neither of them her home state. On average, polls showed Stein at 3%-4% prior to the 2012 election which is where she is right now in the polls even though in 2016 the two major parties have selected two of the most hated nominees in U.S. history.
For Stein to win 5% of the popular vote in 2016, she would have to outperform her current national polling numbers twice over and do 14 times better on election day than in 2012. And since the Green Party is not even on the ballot in all 50 states, Stein would have to beat Nader’s 2000 margins in his top 11 states in almost every state where she is on the ballot.
Stein’s quest for 5% of the popular vote in 2016 is simply mission impossible. What is possible is a repeat of 2000: Stein wins just enough of the left-liberal vote in just one or two states to tilt the outcome of the struggle for 270 electoral college votes in Donald Trump’s favor. (Libertarian Gary ‘Aleppo’ Johnson and independent Evan McMullin may play the same role on the right as Stein on the left.)
If Trump wins because Stein split the left-liberal vote in even just one state, what is left of the post-2000 Green Party will surely be wiped out. But since the Green Party never came close to winning 5% of the popular vote in a presidential election (and not for lack of effort), never elected a single governor, Senator, or member of Congress, and has hardly any elected officials outside of California, would the Green Party’s self-destruction really be a loss for progressives in the U.S.? Or would it clear some political space for something new and better?
The only progressive candidate in U.S. history that won 5% of the popular vote in a presidential election was Bernie Sanders’ hero Eugene Debs running on the Socialist Party (SP) ticket back in 1912. But unlike today’s Green Party, the Debs-era SP fought hard all over the country to successfully elect city councilors, mayors, state legislators, and Congressmen. Unlike today’s Green Party, SP presidential campaigns were a boon to rather than a drain on local electoral work and raised much-needed funds for cash-strapped party locals. It was the SP’s grassroots-focused bottom-up long-term approach that propelled Debs in 1912 on his third SP presidential run to double-digit margins in places like Nevada, Oklahoma, Montana, and Arizona, areas that today we associate with Republican dominance (and where the Green Party is non-existent).
If the SP’s grassroots-first approach sounds familiar, it is because the successor organization to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, Our Revolution, has the same orientation. Yet the Green Party is starting to make trouble on the local level for Our Revolution.
This is nothing new.
The Green Party has fought Sanders and the progressive agenda he championed from a ‘left,’ ultra-left, pseudo-revolutionary standpoint for decades, going all the way back to his days as mayor of Burlington:
“The issue which most sharply divided the Greens from Sanders (and future Mayor Peter Clavelle) was the development of the waterfront. I won’t take the space here to analyze this dispute – but it did lead to a de facto alliance between the Greens and opportunistic Democrats against the progressives. The Greens eventually ran electoral campaigns against the Progressives (virtually never criticizing the Democrats or Republicans).”
Today, the issue that most sharply divides the Green Party from Sanders supporters is the 2016 presidential election and Stein has updated the Burlington Green Party’s 1980s script. On the campaign trail, she spends most of her time attacking Clinton while largely holding her fire against Trump even though his openly racist campaign is clearly the bigger threat to people of color and the progressive agenda. She lulls people into complacency about the danger of a Trump presidency by telling us that a Democratic Congress would blunt the damage his administration would cause, nevermind the fact that it was a Democratic Congress that acted as Bush’s enabler-in-chief.
At best, a vote for Stein is a wasted vote strategically since she will not reach the 5% popular vote threshold in the 2016 presidential election necessary for federal matching funds in 2020.
At worst, a vote for Stein helps Trump by dividing the anti-Trump vote in two.