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Third Parties Faded to the Background in a Shocking Election

9 minute read

The once-lofty third party hopes for 2016 went out with a whimper Tuesday night, garnering just about 4% of the popular vote total and no electoral college votes in an election with one of the most shocking outcomes in recent political history.

“We have a lot to celebrate, a lot to celebrate. This is a celebration,” Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson told supporters Tuesday night.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein struck a more ominous tone early Wednesday morning before the final result had been called, telling Al Jazeera the U.S. political system is “toxic and predatory” and forecasting “trouble in the White House.”

Despite Johnson’s calls for celebration and assertion that the election results mean “there is going to be a third voice in this country,” in the end, most voters made their binary choice.

“This [was] not the year to cast a useless protest vote,” said Elizabeth Sherman, government professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “There’s a lot at stake this election, it’s a very close election, and the message is out, every vote counts. People remember Ralph Nader.” (Nader, the Green Party candidate in 2000, famously won nearly 100,000 votes in Florida while Democrat Al Gore lost the state by just 537 votes. This year in Florida, Trump bested Clinton by nearly 129,000 votes in the state, while Johnson and Stein took home more than 268,000 votes between them.)

For a while, however, it seemed this election cycle could be more fertile ground for third party success. There was an angry seam in the primaries where voters on both sides tried to buck the conventional choices, resulting in the cultural zeitgeist of Bernie Sanders on the left and the nomination, and eventual victory, of Donald Trump on the right. Political party identification is at near historic lows. And at the end of the primaries, the nation found itself with two major party candidates who were historically unpopular.

It gave Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Independent Evan McMullin cause for hope.

“I don’t think there’s anything we could have done better, we were up against a lot of obstacles,” Stein, who particularly tried to tap into disaffected Sanders supporters, told TIME on the eve of the election. “I think fate dealt us a really good hand and we played it right.”

Stein, who ran on environmental issues and ending student debt, consistently polled around 1%-3%. Johnson, whose signature issues were a flat tax and the legalization of marijuana, seemed poised to be the favorite. At his peak in late summer and early September, Johnson was garnering 9% of the vote on average in a four-way match up, and certain polls had him in double digits. During just two weeks in August, Johnson raised more money than he did during his entire 2012 run. Plus, he and his vice presidential candidate Bill Weld were both former governors, lending some gravitas to the ticket.

“The politics has become poisonous on both sides. And it almost seems that the two parties in D.C. exist for the purpose of killing each other,” Weld, a former Republican like Johnson, told TIME of why he joined a third party ticket. “It’s a little bit the strain of, ‘Oh I’ve got to do it because I’ve got to do it,’ and that’s the reaction that I’m trying to stamp out this year. Because that’s the two party monopoly reaction: ‘I’ve got to be an R or D because Grammy and Grandpa were, or because the head of the RNC or the DNC told me to.’”

In August, McMullin entered the race, running a more targeted campaign than Johnson and Stein. On the ballot in just 11 states, he focused his efforts on winning a state or two outright, hoping to block either major party candidate from reaching 270 Electoral College votes. He was open about his goal: “What we can do potentially is win a state or two or three, and if the race is close between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, then we could block them both and take the race to the House of Representatives,” McMullin told TIME in October, the same month he was polling even with Trump and Clinton in Utah.

McMullin ended up coming in a disappointing third in Utah, with 20% of the vote. Had he won the state, he would have been the first third party candidate to win electoral votes since 1968.

“Tonight there are millions of Americans who, I am sad to say, fear their liberties will be challenged by a Trump administration,” McMullin said Tuesday night of the man who bested him in the state and the nation.

McMullin’s failure even with a more modest goal shows that despite some early causes for optimism, the American election system is structurally biased against third party candidates. The enormous amount of infrastructure and money needed to get on the ballot in each state and run a long, successful campaign means, according to Sherman, “It’s just climbing Mount Everest for anybody.” (It should be noted that Gary Johnson actually has climbed Mount Everest. But tonight’s results show a winning Libertarian ticket was the more unconquerable peak.)

As summer turned to fall and the race began to wind down, fissures appeared in the third party campaigns and support for them began to crater. It’s tempting to trace much of the collapse back to three now-infamous words: “What is Aleppo?”

Johnson’s response on MSNBC in September, revealing an apparent lack of knowledge about the center of the Syrian refugee crisis, undermined his credibility on a national stage. “I’d say that he could have been better prepared for some of his interviews,” Jonathan Martin, editor and contributor to Empowering Progressive Third Parties in the United States, said of Johnson’s main weakness as a candidate. “The media does leap on gaffes by third party candidates and it reinforces the existing image that they’re not serious.”

The same month, Johnson confessed to having another “Aleppo moment” when he was unable to name a former world leader, and in perhaps the most severe blow yet, Johnson and Stein did not clear the support threshold to make it on the debate stage for the first (or any subsequent) presidential debate.

“If we had gotten into the debates I think [we] could have really given them a run for their money,” Stein lamented to TIME.

Just days after the first debate, Bill Weld told the Boston Globe that he would use his position as a vice presidential candidate to try to torpedo Trump rather than actively promote his own ticket, setting off a firestorm of rumors that he would abandon Johnson and the Libertarians.

Weld said that his comments had been taken out of context, and that he was still campaigning for himself and Johnson. “That does not betoken angst in the ranks over here, but it does betoken how I view the race,” Weld told TIME of being vocal about his opinion that Trump is a worse candidate than Clinton. “It’s nothing new, period.” (In the same call, Weld did acknowledge that a Libertarian win would be to “catch lightning in a bottle.”)

Stein’s campaign manager David Cobb said at the time that he was “flabbergasted” by Weld’s comments. He said Johnson’s high profile gaffes and the ensuing controversy over Weld’s statements could be a boost for Stein’s campaign, and that they had “a lot of people who are coming to us for that reason.”

Then while his campaign crumbled, a clearly frustrated Johnson turned his sights on his other third party opponent. He complained to a Guardian reporter that McMullin would play spoiler and hand Utah to Clinton, a charge that many third party candidates, including Johnson, are sensitive about. In the end, Trump won the state.

In the final days before the election, tracking polls previewed the third party deterioration. In the final ABC/Washington Post tracking poll on November 7, Johnson came in at 4% and Stein at 1%, slightly higher than the final result. In the end, Johnson won 3% of the vote and Stein took 1%.

Jonathan Martin cautioned that this election collapse is a familiar trend for third parties. “People will take the third party options more seriously until the general election comes closer, and then they’ll be swayed by lesser evil-ism,” he said. And he noted that despite the perhaps disappointing finish, the candidates still outperformed 2012 results, when Johnson won just 0.9% percent of the vote and Stein took 0.3% percent.

Of the about 5 million people who did cast votes for third party candidates this year, surely some were protest votes, a ‘screw you’ to the system that was forcing them to make a choice they resented. Others, however, may take solace that they at least found something to believe in.

“I’m not worried about voting the wasted vote or throwing away my vote,” Alex Graham, a former Republican who volunteered as the Western Pennsylvania director for Gary Johnson, told TIME in October. “I’m totally voting for principle. I’m proud. This is the first time in my life that I’m proud.”

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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com