Trump's Third Party Strategy

New polls show why the GOP is working so hard to prop up 3rd party candidates

Every day brings a flood of media polls, but some polls matter more than others. In 2020, there are no polls more interesting, informative, and influential than the New York Times/Siena College polls. A fresh batch came out yesterday. The topline numbers are very good news for Biden.

  • Minnesota: Biden 50, Trump 41

  • New Hampshire: Biden 45, Trump 42

  • Nevada: Biden 46, Trump 42

  • WI: Biden 48, Trump 43

There is ton of interesting stuff in the crosstabs that speaks to the very steep hill that Trump needs to climb (as well as some things that give me real heartburn). But the number that sticks out to me more than anything else is 43. An incumbent President with 100 percent name ID that dominates the news coverage failing to get above 43 less than two months before the election is something that should scare the living daylights out of the Republicans.

These polls also make clear that Trump has almost no path to 50 percent in the battleground states, which is why the Republicans are working so hard — and potentially illegally — to put third party candidates like Kanye West on the ballot. A Trump victory depends on a strong third party showing.

50 (per)Cent or Die Trying

In 2016, a majority of Americans opposed Trump nationally and in the battleground states. Trump failed to break 50 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida — all states he won. The statistic that always sticks out to me is that Mitt Romney received more votes in Wisconsin in 2012 than Trump did in 2016 even though Romney lost the state by seven. As Amy Walters points out in The Cook Report:

Lots of folks short-hand the results of the 2016 election by highlighting Trump's margin of victory over Clinton instead of his actual vote share. For example, hearing that Trump carried Iowa by 9 points sounds impressive, until you learn that he did so while taking just 51 percent of the vote. Clinton underperformed Obama's 2012 vote share in more states than Trump over-performed Mitt Romney's share of the vote.

While voter suppression reduced turnout in many states, Trump won in large part because third party candidates like Libertarian Gary Johnson and Jill Stein of the Green Party lowered Trump’s win number from 50 to something closer to 48.

President Bill Clinton faced a similar challenge as he prepared for reelection. Clinton won the White House with only 43 percent of the vote in 1992, because businessman Ross Perot took 19 percent of the vote. Clinton knew 43 percent would not be enough for reelection. He spent his first term expanding his appeal beyond 43 percent. Perot ran again in 1996, but Clinton was able to cut his margin in half and grow his own vote share to 49 percent.

Trump, on the other hand, never tried to expand his appeal. He never courted Clinton, Johnson, or Stein voters. Trump has rarely exceeded his 2016 vote share in national or battleground polls. Therefore, his only chance is to get more third party candidates on the ballot and hope they suck up enough voters that don’t like Trump, but remain skeptical of Biden.

Birthday Party Present

Kanye West Re-Embraces Trump & His MAGA Hat in New Year Tweets

The Republican efforts to get third party candidates on the ballot have been far from subtle. Rapper Kanye West, who is running on the mantle of the “Birthday Party,” has been the focus of the GOP effort. This is in and of itself a pretty obvious tell — West is an avowed Trump supporter that decided to run after meeting with Jared Kushner. In case those damning facts were not obvious enough, Kanye coughed up the whole scheme. In an interview with Forbes:

he was reticent to criticize Trump besides that. “Trump is the closest president we’ve had in years to allowing God to still be part of the conversation,” he said.

And West was eager to criticize Biden, and expressed comfort with the idea of doing damage to the former vice president’s White House chances. “I’m not denying it; I just told you.”

Getting on the ballot is very challenging in many states, particularly for independent candidates and especially when that independent candidate is a political novice famous for a lack of follow-through. This is why Republican Party operatives are helping him. According to the Washington Post:

In at least five states, Republican activists and operatives — including some who have publicly supported Trump and a lawyer who has worked for his 2020 campaign— have been involved with efforts to try to get rapper on the November ballot, according to an examination by The Washington Post of public filings and social media posts. Their involvement raises the specter that his candidacy is being propped up by a GOP-driven effort to siphon votes from presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Even with all of this Republican help, Kanye has failed to get on the ballot in a number of key states. A Wisconsin state judge last week affirmed a decision by that state’s elections commission to keep West off the ballot. West’s Republican lawyers are expected to quickly appeal that decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which generally bases their decisions on the legal principle of whatever helps Republicans.

It is worth noting that these efforts — especially Kushner’s — are potentially illegal. As Campaign law expert Rick Hasen noted on his blog:

The real issue is one of potential illegal coordination. A person can contribute up to $2,800 to a presidential campaign (and spend unlimited sums independent of that candidate to support that candidate’s run). When someone spends money supporting a candidate but does so in coordination with a candidate for office, that counts as a contribution and is subject to the $2,800 limit. West surely is spending more than $2,800 on his campaign. If he’s doing so in coordination with the Trump campaign to help Trump win, that could count as an excessive contribution to the campaign and be illegal.

West isn’t the only candidate getting Republican help. The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, is also fighting to get on the Wisconsin ballot with the help of Republican Attorneys.

Hawkins suggested in an interview that Trump supporters had helped the Green Party ticket with its legal claim before the state Supreme Court. The party’s petition was filed by attorneys from the Milwaukee-based von Briesen & Roper law firm, which has a history of representing Wisconsin Republicans.“You get help where you can find it,” Hawkins told The Washington Post when asked whether Republicans had financed the legal action. “They have their reasons and we have ours.”

There is nothing at all suspicious or weird about a party full of climate deniers helping the Green Party get on the ballot in a state that Trump needs to win for reelection. I sometimes wish the Republicans would at least have the decency to attempt to cover up their crimes and corrupt acts.

Will it Make A Difference?

The assumption among most political observers — myself included — is that the third party share of the vote is going to be much smaller in 2020. Trump and Clinton were two of the least popular candidates to ever run for President which undoubtedly contributed to so many people voting for someone else. Biden’s favorables are higher than Clintons and as unpopular as President Trump is, he is more popular than candidate Trump.

But even a small vote share could matter on the margins and the margins are where close races are won.

There are two factors to look at: The size of the third party vote and whether those votes are coming from Biden or Trump. Recent polling suggests that Trump has some work to do in this regard. According to a recent poll from Navigator Research, Biden leads Trump 67-17 among people that voted for someone other than Clinton or Trump in ‘16.

Trump recognizes that it is going to be hard to move people from Biden to him, but he might be able to move them from Biden to someone else. According to the New York Times/Siena poll of Wisconsin, Biden’s vote share dropped a point since their last poll earlier this summer. That could be statistical noise or it could be an opening for Trump’s third party strategy. Time will tell.

What We Can Do About it?

Most of us have no say or influence over whether Kanye West and Howie Hawkins end up on the ballot. Even if neither of them make it, Jo Jorgenson, the Libertarian candidate for President will be on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Therefore, voter persuasion won’t only be between Trump and Biden, we also need to account for other options. Here are some thoughts on how to do that:

Raise the Stakes: I remain haunted by a conversation I had in Pennsylvania in 2016 with some college students deciding between Clinton and Stein. They believed that Clinton would probably win, so they felt safe registering a protest vote. When talking to potential non-voters or third party voters, it is important to focus on the importance of their political power. This is perhaps the most important election in history. It is likely to be incredibly close and every vote counts. As Michelle Obama pointed out in her convention speech, two voters per precinct delivered Michigan to Trump. We need to remind every voter of that fact.

Call Out The Republicans: The Republican efforts to prop up third party candidates is incredibly corrupt, so we should make sure they pay a political price for their extra-legal shenanigans. The best way to do that is to make sure everyone knows about it. Most potential third-party voters hate traditional politics by definition. Explaining the connections between Kushner and Kanye and the Republican lawyers and the Green Party can push some voters into Biden’s camp. The fact that Trump needs to cheat to win is more evidence of his weakness.

Why Biden, Not Why Not Trump: This group of voters are already pretty sold on the idea that Trump is a failure. More Lincoln Project-style dunking on Trump is not going to move them to Biden. We need to inform these voters about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — their stories, their values and their agenda. Focus more on the good that happens if they win and less on the bad that happens if they don’t.

Listen Don’t, Yell: There are lots of very legitimate questions about the leadership of the Green Party and their willingness to be used as spoilers for a candidate that opposes everything for which they stand. However, yelling at voters, calling them Russian stooges, and blaming them for Trump is a bad way to win them to our cause. Like non-voters, third party voters are making a specific decision. We need to listen to why and then try to persuade them with our best arguments. Some Green Party voters think both parties are bad on the environment. This is factually incorrect. Biden’s climate plan is big, bold, progressive, and was developed with the help of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. His plan could be a powerful weapon with these voters, but only if we tell them about it

Maybe Biden will maintain a substantial lead and all of this mischievousness won’t matter. That would be a great and a relaxing outcome, but I am still betting the race will narrow. And if it does, we need to be ready.

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