Authored on September 13, 2019

With no real hope of winning, third-party presidential candidates serve as spoilers. They thwart majority rule, undermine the winner’s legitimacy and risk an undesirable outcome. Even when they bring worthy issues to the fore (see Ross Perot’s alarms about the rising national debt in 1992), they do so at high cost.

“I’d advise people who don’t like the two-party system to put your efforts into structural reforms of the political process,” Horner said, mentioning ideas like ranked-choice voting, putting redistricting into nonpartisan hands and limiting big-money influence in campaigns. “Until we do those things, we won’t have an opportunity for a third party to succeed.”


Star Tribune, Sept. 7: “Howard Schultz, the former chief executive of Starbucks who took steps earlier this year to prepare to run for president as an independent, announced that he was abandoning those plans. Schultz said he had concluded that an independent bid would pose too great a risk of helping Trump win a second term.”

That was the entire item tucked into near-obscurity on page A4 — and that’s a shame. Particularly in Minnesota, that second sentence deserved a lot better play.

For 150 years, Minnesota has led the nation in dalliance with multiparty politics. Consider: The Prohibition Party endorsed its first candidate for Minnesota governor in 1869. The first non-Republican governor to be elected after the Civil War, John Lind, was endorsed by the Democratic, Silver Republican and Populist parties. The state’s dominant party in the 1930s wasn’t Republican or Democratic. It was the Farmer-Labor Party, which merged with the Democrats in 1944.

More’s the point: The reason President Donald Trump nearly broke the Democratic Party’s 40-year hold on this state’s Electoral College votes in 2016 was not because Trump won more North Star State votes than did the losing 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. (Well, Trump did outpoll Romney in Minnesota, but only by about 3,000 votes. In a state election in which nearly 3 million people voted, that’s chump change.)

Rather, Hillary Clinton’s narrow escape in Minnesota was the result of a surge in votes for third-party candidates for president. More than a quarter-million Minnesotans cast their 2016 presidential ballots for the likes of the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Libertarian Gary Johnson, five other no-names from obscure parties, or a write-in favorite.

That was nearly four times more third-party presidential votes than were cast in Minnesota in 2012.

Several observations apropos the 2020 presidential contest spring from those numbers. One is that being an early favorite for a major-party nomination does not mean one is a strong candidate. Clinton clearly wasn’t. She had considerably less support among Minnesotans than Barack Obama did four years earlier. Obama’s 2012 Minnesota tally topped Clinton’s in 2016 by nearly 180,000 votes.

 

Another is that the 2016 results don’t suggest that Trump’s appeal goes beyond the usual GOP base in Minnesota, or that he is poised to win the state in 2020. On the contrary: When one accounts for the growth in the state’s voting-age population between 2012 and 2016, one can argue (at risk of inciting a presidential tweetstorm) that Trump did more poorly than Romney did in the state.

One more: A lot of Minnesotans chafe at the binary nature of American politics. They’ve tried multiparty or multicandidate politics at the state and local levels without what they consider ill effect. They’ve imposed ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis, St. Paul and St. Louis Park to make it more likely that multicandidate contests for municipal offices yield majority winners.

Some Minnesotans in 2016 evidently thought they could safely pretend that this is a multiparty nation when they voted for president. Some have told me they might do the same in 2020 if their favorite among the current Democratic contenders is not the nominee.

I asked Tom Horner what he would say to anyone so inclined. Horner cannot be accused of blind loyalty to the two-party system. His unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial candidacy netted 12% of the vote and represented a last hurrah for the Independence Party’s Gov. Jesse Ventura era.

His advice: Don’t be led into third-party temptation in 2020 — not if you think the nation ought to have a different president in 2021.

“The focus needs to be on defeating Donald Trump,” Horner said. “Anything that even potentially detracts from that is not a smart vote.”

It’s unrealistic to believe that a third-party contender can win the presidency — not without major structural changes in America’s electoral system, Horner said. Difficult as he found it to break the hold the two parties have on the governorship, his 2010 challenge was not nearly as great as would have existed for, say, Starbucks exec Schultz in a presidential bid. Most states aren’t as third-party-friendly as Minnesota, which prides itself on easy ballot access and allows third parties to qualify for public campaign financing for state offices.

With no real hope of winning, third-party presidential candidates serve as spoilers. They thwart majority rule, undermine the winner’s legitimacy and risk an undesirable outcome. Even when they bring worthy issues to the fore (see Ross Perot’s alarms about the rising national debt in 1992), they do so at high cost.

“I’d advise people who don’t like the two-party system to put your efforts into structural reforms of the political process,” Horner said, mentioning ideas like ranked-choice voting, putting redistricting into nonpartisan hands and limiting big-money influence in campaigns. “Until we do those things, we won’t have an opportunity for a third party to succeed.”

Until then, he advised, voters should examine the two big parties’ presidential candidates and choose the one best able to govern. “Proven ability to govern has got to matter more this time. We’ve got to move away from considering people who might be good candidates but who have no experience in governing.”

In 2016, a friend who announced his intention to vote for Jill Stein did not appreciate the scowl he got from me in response.

“This is America!” he bristled. “I should be able to vote for the candidate I like best!”

What I should have said then — and will say to anyone with third-party inclinations in 2020: “Yes, this is America — a nation that has had a two-party political system for 220 years. Pretending that’s not true is not just unrealistic. It’s dangerous.”

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.