vision 2020

A Hidden Advantage for Biden: Low Interest in Minor Parties

Jill Stein, 2016 spoiler extraordinaire. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the brushfire over Kanye West’s struggle to get his Birthday Party onto the presidential ballot in Wisconsin, an arguably more important issue may have been obscured: Wisconsin Democrats are challenging Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins’s place on the ballot as well. That’s a bit of a surprise given the state’s really low petition requirements (just 2,000 signatures from registered voters) for ballot access. But Democrats claim that a big chunk of the Green Party petitions list the wrong home address for Hawkins’s running-mate, Angela Walker (who recently moved). The Wisconsin Elections Commission will meet next week to determine the ballot status for both West and Hawkins.

Hawkins’s predecessor Jill Stein won 31,072 votes in Wisconsin in 2016, more than the 22,748 margin by which Trump edged Clinton in the state. With Wisconsin being widely projected as a potential tipping-point state for both candidates if the race tightens, potential drainage of votes away from Biden and from Trump could be significant (Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen is definitely on the Wisconsin ballot).

More generally, though, there are abundant signs that interest in voting for minor-party candidates is down sharply this year. It’s worth remembering that such interest was exceptionally high in 2016 by historical standards. At 6 percent, the minor-party vote was the highest it has ever been absent some big-time split in a major party or a massively financed independent like Ross Perot. By every indicator, in 2020 it is likely to more closely resemble the 1.8 percent that non-major-party candidates amassed in 2012, or at most the 3.8 percent of 2000.

Indeed, a comparison of pre-convention polling in 2016 and 2020 by Kyle Kondik shows that one significant difference is in support for “others” when offered the major-party candidates: It’s less than half this year of the 2016 levels. And that could be significant:

Trump’s performance among late-deciding voters and voters who held an unfavorable view of each candidate helped him win the election [in 2016]. In general, there seem to be fewer of these kinds of voters this time.

Almost invariably, support for minor-party candidates drops as Election Day approaches, and if that happens even as Biden maintains a lead, it will become harder and harder for Trump to catch up:

 [I]f the number of undecideds stays the same or even falls, without a corresponding tightening of the race, Trump has an even smaller pool of non-Biden voters to convert.

And that’s aside from the political-science axiom holding that undecided voters rarely break in the direction of incumbents, particularly in hard times.

At present Biden’s lead in the weighted (for quality) and adjusted (for partisan bias) FiveThirtyEight averages is at 8.4 percent, and it has been over 7 percent since June 6. Perhaps it will shrink, but at some point Trump is going to run out of voters to flip, and the anti-Trump enthusiasm Democrats are showing this week is likely to offset the most intense MAGA enthusiasm for the incumbent.

A Hidden Advantage for Biden: Low Interest in Minor Parties