Election 2020

How a Third-Party Candidate Can Win

In this Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016 photo, Evan McMullin, a conservative independent presidential candidate, speaks at a town hall meeting in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin has attracted a great deal of attention recently, and for good reason. If he wins his home state of Utah, he very well could become president. And he’s not alone either — Libertarian Gary Johnson has a chance, too.

This could only happen if the election is close — so close that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton wins 270 electoral votes in November. Then, according to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, the election goes to the House of Representatives, where Johnson or McMullin could have a real shot.

Granted, such a situation is not likely, but it is possible for a third-party candidate to become president in January. Here’s how.

1. McMullin or Johnson wins a state.

The presidential race is tied in Utah, and not just between Clinton and Trump. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll over this past weekend, Trump takes 30 percent, Clinton takes 28 percent, and McMullin takes 29 percent. Since the margin of error for the poll is 4 points, this is an effective tie between Trump, Clinton, and McMullin.

Utah’s heavy Mormon population harbors deep doubts about Trump. After Mitt Romney endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the primary, Cruz took 69 percent of the vote, leaving Trump in third with a paltry 14 percent. Utah is a deep-red state, but Trump’s unpopularity could push the Beehive State into McMullin’s camp.

FiveThirtyEight’s “now-cast” gives McMullin a 14.2 percent chance of winning Utah, quite a bit ahead of Clinton’s 6.2 percent chance, but well below Trump’s 79.2 percent chance. There is good reason to think McMullin’s odds will improve, however. Google search traffic for the third-party candidate is up, and as Utah Mormons realize that he has a chance, they may be more likely to flock to him. It may be unlikely that he takes the state from Trump, but it is becoming more and more possible.

Gary Johnson faces a much stiffer climb, however. In his home state of New Mexico, he has only a 0.4 percent chance of winning. The blue state has a 92.5 percent chance of going for Clinton. This is Johnson’s most competitive state, where he polls at 17.6 percent.

In each of the other states where Johnson polls above 8 percent, either Clinton or Trump already has the state locked up. In Montana (10.2 percent for Johnson), Trump holds a solid lead at 49 percent. Clinton has Washington state in the bag with 52.6 percent, so Johnson’s 8.2 percent likely won’t propel him to victory. Each state follows this situation. Utah is contested, but Trump, Clinton, and McMullin are in the 20s, while Johnson lags at 9.4 percent.

If McMullin wins Utah, he could become president. Unfortunately, polling does not suggest any state that Johnson could win. He would need to win a state in order to have any shot at the presidency. McMullin’s strategy of focusing on one state is more likely to give him a shot.

Next Page: But winning one state is not enough.

2. Clinton and Trump both have to lose.

In order to become president, a candidate needs a majority of votes in the Electoral College. If neither candidate gets 270, things get interesting. In one sense, both Clinton and Trump have to lose in order to give Johnson or McMullin a chance to take the presidency.

If McMullin wins Utah, it is possible (though still unlikely) for Clinton and Trump to each take just under 270 votes. At that point, Congress would determine the presidency.

The difficulty with this scenario right now is that Trump lags Clinton in the polls overall, and in key states in particular. It is possible he might outperform the polls, and that the WikiLeaks slog might push Clinton down, erasing her lead.

Trump has to improve in order for Clinton to lose. A McMullin victory in Utah or a Johnson victory in any other state won’t matter unless Clinton fails to take 270 electoral votes. According to FiveThirtyEight’s now-cast, Clinton is likely to take 343 electoral votes on November 8. She has an 89.8 percent chance of winning, if the election were held today.

This means that if you live in a swing state, and you want a third-party victory, you should support Trump. McMullin or Johnson does not just have to win, both Trump and Clinton have to lose on November 8. Right now, Clinton is winning and Trump needs a boost. If the situation were reversed, third-party supporters would need to vote Clinton. The important thing is a balance.

3. The House must be divided.

If neither Clinton nor Trump takes 270 electoral votes, the election moves to the House of Representatives. According to the Twelfth Amendment, the House votes for the president, with each state getting one vote (determined by the majority of votes in the delegation), while the Senate votes for the vice president.

The House can choose between the top three candidates for president, while the Senate can only choose between the top two. This is excellent news for a third-party candidate.

If McMullin wins Utah or Johnson wins a state, one of them will be on the ballot in the House of Representatives, but neither of their vice presidential candidates would be available in the Senate. If Johnson or McMullin can prevent Trump from winning a majority of states and pushing the House to a second ballot, it is likely the Senate would decide the vice president first.

If the House is divided until January 20, 2017 — Inauguration Day — then the chosen vice president will be sworn in as president. This gives whichever party did not win the vice presidency extra incentive to join with the McMullin/Johnson wing and elect the third-party candidate president.

Next Page: What this looks like and how you vote to achieve it.

So what does this look like, in practice?

Let’s say McMullin wins Utah, and neither Trump nor Clinton takes 270. Republicans keep the Senate and Indiana Governor Mike Pence is elected vice president. The House breaks 19 states for Clinton, 23 states for Trump, and 8 for McMullin. Neither Democrats nor Republicans can win without the McMullin vote, and if the split remains, Pence becomes president. Therefore, Democrats cut their losses and side with McMullin, making him president.

Let’s say Johnson wins New Mexico (no matter how unlikely), and neither Trump nor Clinton takes 270. Democrats take the Senate and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine is elected vice president. The house breaks 19 states for Clinton, 23 states for Trump, and 8 for Johnson. If the Johnson states do not budge and it looks like Kaine will become president, Republicans might jump ship from Trump and elect Johnson.

To be clear, three hurdles have to be crossed in order for a third-party candidate to have a chance: the candidate must win a state, neither Clinton nor Trump can win the Electoral College majority, and the first ballot in the House of Representatives must be split. Many Republicans have abandoned Trump in recent weeks, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. If Republicans keep the House, it is quite possible for them to divide over Trump, and prevent him from taking a majority on the first ballot.

So how can you help make this a reality? It’s rather simple. If you live in a state where McMullin or Johnson has anything like a chance on Election Day, vote Johnson or McMullin. Right now, this just means if you live in Utah, vote McMullin.

It’s possible Johnson could find some unexpected boost in one or two states and become a viable contender, but unlikely. States to watch include New Mexico (where Johnson has 17.6 percent), Alaska (12.2 percent), and Montana (10.2 percent). Trump’s campaign just pulled out of Virginia, for example, where Johnson only has 8.1 percent. Unless the Libertarian rises a great deal in the polls, Virginians might still be better suited to vote Trump.

If you live in a state where neither Johnson nor McMullin can win, vote for Donald Trump. No matter how odious he might seem to you, he needs to prevent Clinton from winning outright so Johnson or McMullin can have a shot. And seriously, if you have any friends or family in Utah, tell them to vote McMullin.

One final note: both Trump and Clinton partisans are likely to become very, very angry if their candidate does not become president — especially if the House chooses a third-party candidate. The last time there was an electoral vote tie (in 1824, when the House chose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson), the aggrieved party (Jackson’s Democrats) became very indignant. They called this election the “corrupt bargain,” and their candidate went on to win the next election.

As much as many of us want someone besides Clinton or Trump to be president, such a case might actually cause long-term resentment that will further divide the country. One can only hope that Johnson or McMullin would be up to the task of uniting us once again.