The entrance, and exit, of Michigan Congressman Justin Amash as a possible Libertarian Party candidate will lead to endless debates about whether this help or hurt President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden. An undergraduate and I look at election cases to find out.
Most examining the problem look at polls, not history. A Monmouth survey showed Biden with a nine-point lead over Trump, but only a seven-point advantage when Amash’s presence is factored in as an option for voters, so his camp may be relieved by Amash dropping out..
Rather than rely on polls, or pundit conjecture, one of my undergraduates Andrew Valbuena and I examined history to see what has actually happened when there was a third party or independent challenge to the election. Valbuena looked at all cases from 1800-1944 while I covered the elections from 1948 to 2016. And here is what we found.
Of the 56 elections we analyzed, there were 23 elections where there was a third party or independent challenge. We coded cases where the third-party candidate gets more than three votes in the Electoral College, or at least 2.74 percent of the popular vote, which might have been enough to tip several close contests.
Of these, 13 cases lead to the defeat of the incumbent, or the incumbent’s party (the party controlling the White House loses the next open seat election). That shows that third parties can cause problems for the party in charge. Some of these famous cases include the wild 1824 or 1860 elections with four viable candidates getting Electoral College votes in each contest. Or these represent independent challenges by former presidents attempting a comeback (Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, or “Bull Moose” Theodore Roosevelt).
Of the remaining races where there is not a third-party challenge, the incumbent wins reelection or the party in power holds on to the executive branch in 25 of those 33 cases. If you’re keeping score, the Chi-Square test shows that those numbers are statistically significant, and these are five more cases of incumbents winning reelection than expected by a random model.
It’s an even stronger relationship when you look at all cases since 1950. In the seven cases where a third-party runs or independent ran, the challenger won six of them against the incumbent or incumbent party in power (JFK in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Reagan in 1980, Clinton in 1992, Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016). Only President Bill Clinton in 1996 was able to fend his Republican rival and Perot to break the trend.
These findings show that based upon history, President Trump is the beneficiary of Amash’s decision not to run in 2020. Evidence shows that in general, third party challenges and independents dilute the support of challengers against an incumbent or an incumbent’s party, seeking to retain the White House.
As interesting as these findings are, there’s a story behind this study. Though the semester was over, Andrew Valbuena contacted me about doing a research project. He heard from our graduates from law school and graduate school how important such research is for getting in, and succeeding beyond college. This soccer player and participant in our presentations before the Georgia Senate and Capitol show the true spirit of our college students, undeterred by the pandemic, eager to do additional work before taking that well-deserved summer break. Now that’s a finding almost as significant as our research on third-party challenges.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His views are his own. He can be reached at email@example.com. His Twitter account is JohnTures2. Andrew Valbuena is an undergraduate political science major at LaGrange College at LaGrange, Georgia.