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Can Third Parties Destroy Elections? Truth from Math Expertise Made Simple.

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, the Major Third Party Candidates in the 2016 US Presidential Elections

It is election season and a hot topic on social media is whether or not Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will throw the election to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. A meme illustrates the claim from the perspective of casual third party activists:

Ignoring the disparaging, Orwellian insult of co-opting kind Mr. Rogers to express the false superiority of the creator, is it true? Even people with bad character can offer truthful messages.

To answer whether or not third party candidates would throw the election to a major party, the mathematics of probability are required. Unfortunately, the meme maker treats an inductive problem like a deductive, axiomatic one. In other words, their model entails about 120 million likely voters, who must vote for one of four candidates, and who are all guaranteed to vote, no matter who is on the ballot. That’s not reality.

In reliability engineering, we were expected to pick up statistical math on our own and immediately apply it to real world problems. It was an incredibly easy topic, and a stress-free break from courses like operational methods. When I saw this meme, I immediately constructed the correct solution.

There are two generalized events to compare:

  1. Trump vs. Clinton with no third parties (T = Trump, C = Clinton)

  2. Trump vs. Clinton vs. Johnson vs. Stein (J = Johnson, S = Stein)

These are two sets of mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive events, meaning that one (and only one) must win:

  1. Only one of two candidates must win: P(T ∩ C) =  0 and P(T U C) = 1

  2. Only one of four candidates must win: P(T ∩ C ∩ J ∩ S) =  0 and P(T U C U J U S) = 1

So the question then becomes what is the probability of Trump or Clinton winning with or without third party candidates in the race? Based on polls, we know that Johnson and Stein cannot win, hovering at 9% and 3% respectively. When Ross Perot took 18% of the popular vote in 1992, he did have an impact on election results.

So people who are interested in taking this seriously must now ask – how will votes for Johnson or Stein tip the election to Clinton or Trump. That is the only rational outcome of a vote for Stein or Johnson, since they cannot win. If all four candidates were hovering around 25%, we would be having a different conversation. But that’s not the reality.

In order to answer how Stein and Johnson will tip the election, we would consider a handful of voter dispositions:

  1. Committed to Trump

  2. Committed to Clinton

  3. Committed to Johnson

  4. Committed to Stein

  5. Leaning Trump

  6. Leaning Clinton

  7. Leaning Johnson

  8. Leaning Stein

  9. Abstain

  10. Write-in

That set of ten possibilities contrasts sharply with an election where the third parties are not on the ballot:

  1. Committed to Trump

  2. Committed to Clinton

  3. Lean Trump

  4. Lean Clinton

  5. Abstain

  6. Write-in

To answer whether or not Stein and Johnson will throw the election to Trump or Clinton, a serious investigator would need to analyze how the following groups would change without the third parties on the ballot:

  1. Committed to Johnson

  2. Committed to Stein

  3. Lean Johnson

  4. Lean Stein

Would they all abstain? How much of each group would ultimately commit to Trump or Clinton? Is it fair to say that most of Stein’s voters would go to Clinton, and most of Johnson’s would go to Trump, and a comparable number of each would abstain? Where would a researcher find such data?

We would also need to perform conditional probability calculations to determine how the third party candidates would impact the election. If our assumption about the transference of third-party voters holds, then Stein may leach 1.5 – 3% from Clinton and Johnson may leach 4.5 – 9% from Trump. When we consider the electoral college, and the fact that the votes in swing states are going to decide the election, the calculations become even more complex. A few percentage points in the national electorate may not make a difference at all.

So what’s the honest answer to whether or not the third parties will destroy this election by taking genuine political convictions and redirecting them to Trump or Clinton wins? We simply don’t know. The only thing we know for sure is that since neither Johnson nor Stein can win, those who vote for them will either have no impact or they will influence a Trump or Clinton win.

Unless somebody shows you their homework – and constructs the problem exactly as it was stated here, they are deceiving you. They need to create a mutually exclusive set of events, with conditional probability, and then adapt it to the electoral college, and compare the scenarios with or without third parties in the race. That’s a complex problem, but complexity is the nature of modeling the real world accurately, compared to propaganda from people with next to no understanding of mathematics.

Alvarism does not endorse any of the candidates. We do insist that claims like this are treated honestly. Nothing good for America will occur by misleading voters about the realistic impact of their choices. This may frustrate those who are wedded to third parties, and with that frustration, I can sympathize. Libertarians like Rand Paul have been working within the Republican party to increase the real influence of their voters. He is an example of a different path to the same destination for libertarians.

Before we assert that third parties are the solution for frustrated voters, let’s remember what happened in Germany when a minority of many third parties was sufficient to win their nation.

Our leaders are reflections of the electorate, no matter how they are organized under multiple parties. Political change begins with understanding civics, understanding the alternatives, and then affecting change at the local level, in caucuses, and through political action to which elected officials must respond. Economic Sovereignty details political visions in Chapter 2. It will empower citizens to realize the origins of political bias, and to start engaging in meaningful ways. When we treat problems like this critically, honestly, and practically, every citizen wins.

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