Third-party presidential runs are apparently all the rage. Earlier this month, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang of New York, former Republican congressman David Jolly of Florida and former Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey formed the Forward Party as an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties. Then Republican Rep. Liz Cheney sparked third-party presidential campaign talk after her defeat in the Wyoming primary last Tuesday.
Pundits on both sides of the aisle are discussing her electoral chances in the Republican Party or as an independent. But right now, any discussion about an alternative to the two-party system in place is just talk. No third-party candidate will win the presidency until the state electoral system is reformed — which is exactly why Cheney likely wouldn’t run as an independent.
Liz Cheney is aware of the structural obstacles facing third-party candidates, and she is not stupid.
The Constitution states: “The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the electors appointed.” If no one candidate reaches 270 votes, which is a majority of the 538 electors, then the House of Representatives decides the elections, with each state receiving one vote.
Let’s say a third-party candidate did manage to win enough electoral votes to prevent the Democratic or Republican Party candidate from reaching 270, and thus the required majority. The election would then be thrown to the House, where the two parties are firmly entrenched. It’s hard to imagine that either would select a third-party candidate instead of their own party’s candidate.
For a third-party candidate to stand a chance, two major reforms need to happen.
First, state-level elections require a significant overhaul. Presently, only a couple of states have independently affiliated senators, like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — but even Sanders ran in the Democratic congressional primary in 2018 before running as an independent in the regular election.
Under the current electoral system, a true third-party candidate could only win if the election was thrown to the House, where there are currently no independent representatives. If third-party candidates served in the House, an independent’s presidential victory might be possible.
States could facilitate third-party candidates in the legislature by adopting “top two” primaries with rank choice voting. In “top two” primaries, all candidates, regardless of party, run at the same time and the top two candidates advance. Rank choice voting asks voters to rank their candidate preference. If a candidate reaches a simple majority outright, then that candidate wins. If no candidate reaches a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Then, the voters whose candidate was eliminated will have their number two votes counted. The process of elimination and redistributing votes continues until a candidate has secured a majority. Currently, several cities, like New York City, San Francisco and Santa Fe offer rank choice voting in their elections. In California and Washington, voters select the top two candidates from an open ballot, and in Nebraska, candidates run without party affiliation.
This process could facilitate a successful independent campaign because it promotes coalition-building among candidates and their supporters. These coalitions could be composed of multiple parties, unlike a two-party primary system which tends to foster intense party affiliation. If third-party candidates could win seats at the state and congressional level, then that would build essential institutional support during presidential elections.
Second, the rules for presidential elections need to change. Now, it’s nearly impossible for any third-party candidate to receive electoral votes. Forty-eight states give all their electoral votes to the winning candidate. For example, in Wisconsin in 2016, Donald Trump won 47.8% of the vote, Hillary Clinton won 47%, and Gary Johnson won 3.6%. Yet, Trump won all 10 electoral college votes, rather than only 4.7 going to him, with the rest appointed to Clinton and Johnson.
This process has defeated many third-party candidates in the past. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won only 41.8% of the popular vote with the Democratic Party, Theodore Roosevelt won 27.4% with the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party, William Howard Taft won 23.2% with the Republican Party, and Eugene V. Debs won 6% with the Socialist Party. Although Wilson’s percentage was one of the lowest in modern history, he won 435 electoral college votes because he won the largest portion of the vote in 40 states.
More recently, in 1992, H. Ross Perot received the biggest vote share of any independent candidate in the last several decades, with nearly 19% of the popular vote. But he did not win a single electoral college vote because almost all of the states gave their electoral votes to just one candidate. Other third-party candidates, like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in 2016, also received zero electoral votes. Instead, their presence on the ballot likely influenced the outcome in close states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump won the states’ 16 and 10 electoral votes, respectively, by a small margin against Hilary Clinton. Some critics said that Stein and Johnson being on the ballot poached voters from Clinton and helped Trump to win.
Two states offer an alternative. Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system to assign their electors. For example, in 2020, Trump won four electoral votes and President Joe Biden won one electoral vote in Nebraska. If more states adopted a proportion system, a third-party candidate could theoretically win electoral votes.
Liz Cheney is aware of the structural obstacles facing third-party candidates, and she is not stupid. She must know that running as a third-party candidate could make a Trump victory more likely. According to a July NPR poll, her approval rating among Democratic voters is 60%, but only 13% among Republican voters. A current YouGov poll shows Biden beating Trump 46% to 42% among registered voters in a head-to-head rematch if the 2024 election was held today. When Cheney was added to the list as a possible independent candidate, 11% of registered voters chose her, 40% chose Trump, and 32% went for Biden.
In other words, most of her support came from Biden voters.
Cheney also knows that she has no chance of winning the Republican Party nomination. If she can’t win her House seat in Wyoming, the reddest of red states, where the Cheney family ran a political dynasty, she is unlikely to win a primary anywhere.
But maybe, just maybe, winning isn’t her goal. She could have announced her retirement in late January 2021 once it became clear the Republican Party had decided to remain loyal to Trump. She didn’t have to campaign for the primary all the way until the end. Instead, Cheney decided to fight, even when it was clear she would lose (and it was clear for a very long time). She used the race as an opportunity to condemn Trump’s actions, shame her fellow Republicans for their unwavering loyalty to Trump and discuss the importance of the Constitution.
In Cheney’s concession speech, she said she would “do whatever it takes” to prevent former President Trump from returning to the Oval Office. If she runs, it will be as a Republican and not because there is a path to victory in the Republican primary. It will be because she sees a way to take Trump down with her by constantly reminding Republican voters of his dereliction of duty as president. Her presence on the debate stage and on the ballot will give other candidates space to criticize the former president, and she will force them to reckon with the consequences of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt. Until electoral reforms make viable a third-party candidate, that is a commendable goal and more than enough.
We should expect the same from the Forward Party. In a recent interview with CNN’s Jim Acosta, Andrew Yang said that he didn’t want to increase Trump’s chance of re-election. Yet, in the next answer, he said that he hadn’t made any decisions about 2024 and that the country needs a “unifying positive third-party movement.” If he truly cares about keeping Trump from the Oval Office, he wouldn’t consider a Forward Party presidential run right now.
In the same interview, Yang said the Forward Party doesn’t have “left or right [policies], but a forward stance on even the most divisive and contentious issues.” Until the party can offer a concrete explanation of their policy proposals or how they would overcome the electoral college hurdles, they would better serve the country by following Cheney’s lead.