It is not unprecedented for a third party candidate to run for the presidency and experience some degree of success – Millard Fillmore, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ross Perot all garnered significant support in the general election while representing third parties. Their relative successes can each be attributed to some degree of dissatisfaction with the state of the Union at the times of their respective campaigns. Fillmore appealed to the anti-Catholic Know Nothings, Roosevelt to the those increasingly worried about monopoly power, and Perot to those concerned with rising government debt and the rapidly changing American economy.
But less precedent exists for an independent candidate running in response to significant discontent with the presumptive major-party nominees. Yet such is the situation we may find ourselves in this November, as rumors circulate about who might step in to make for a more appealing ballot. As the race currently stands, voters will likely be choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a decision that would leave many Republicans and Democrats alike in a quandary. According to a Gallup poll conducted in May, 31 percent of Republicans view Trump unfavorably, and 26 percent of Democrats harbor similar sentiments toward Clinton.
While there are many reasons why voters may dislike the presumptive party nominees, there is unity in their desire for some alternative. For much of the primary election, Bernie Sanders has offered that alternative for those of the progressive left, and much of his following seems to remain loyal despite his now nonexistent prospects for the Democratic nomination. How he chooses to proceed after the primary race is over will be an important factor for Clinton going into the general election. For the right, institutional support initially rested in such candidates as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, but their prospects were stifled by the unabashed and unfiltered campaign of The Donald.
But as history has shown, such rampant disapproval of standard proceedings can pave the way for unorthodox alternatives. At least, that is what Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson hopes as he tries to establish himself as an attractive third party candidate. Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, believes that Americans will turn to him and embrace his libertarian platform as an escape from the unappealing major-party candidates.
Johnson is endorsing a fiscally conservative platform and has chosen Bill Weld of Massachusetts, also a former governor, as his running mate. The two men hope to tap into a subset of voters who are dissatisfied with the current candidates and may not realize the extent to which they agree with the libertarian platform. So far, this appeal seems to be working, with Johnson receiving 11 percent of the popular vote in a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
The significant support that Johnson is receiving as a third party candidate may cause the general election to take an unusual turn. Assuming Johnson is able to win the electoral votes from several states, it may be that no candidate wins the 270 electoral votes required for a majority. If this is the case, then the House of Representatives is responsible for deciding who the next president will be, with each state delegation receiving one vote. Therefore, it is possible that the approaching general election will ultimately be decided by a House vote.
The Twelfth Amendment provides provisions for an election wherein no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes. It requires that the House vote between the top three candidates until one receives an absolute majority of votes. Each state delegation casts one vote, meaning 26 votes are necessary to win. If Johnson manages to garner enough support to prevent any candidate from receiving a majority of electoral votes, then the presidency will be decided by the House for the first time since 1825.
If such procedures do become necessary, it is unclear what that would mean for this year’s election. Between Trump and Clinton, Clinton currently holds the lead in the polls. But with a Republican dominated Congress, both Trump and Johnson may receive far greater support in the House than in the actual general election. Whether either candidate could win a majority, though, is still unknown. While the election mechanism may be convoluted, it’s always about the majority.