There are plenty of reasons why Democrat Hillary Clinton went down to defeat Tuesday night at the hands of Republican Donald Trump --from the surprising groundswell of angry, aggrieved Trump supporters to the former secretary of state’s missteps in handling her email scandal and blatant mistakes by her advisers in targeting their ample resources.
Clinton was also hurt by lackluster turnouts of some of her key constituencies, including Hispanics, African Americans and union members in key battleground states. And of course, it’s hard to overlook the damage done to her by a tidal wave of hacked Democratic emails released by WikiLeaks in the final weeks of the campaign. Or FBI Director James Comey’s inexplicable decision to briefly reopen and then abruptly close the federal investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure at the State Department.
But in a national election that came down to the wire in a small handful of battleground states, it was hard not to notice that the third party candidacies of Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Green might have played an outsized role in Clinton’s stunning demise.
Johnson, the former businessman and New Mexico governor, mounted a high-profile effort this year to shakeup the presidential campaign and put the sleepy Libertarian Party on the political map. He pressed to be included in the nationally televised presidential debates and drew at least five percent of the national vote to make it easier for his party to gain ballot access in future elections.
Johnson and Stein dismissed the Republican and Democratic parties as obsolete and expressed no compunction about spoiling the prospects of either Clinton or Trump. However, Johnson’s efforts faded in recent weeks as a series of political gaffes including an inability to identify the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo and his ignorance about recent terrorist attacks in the U.S. caught up with him.
Johnson’s once ambitious hopes for a banner campaign year gave way to a modest showing Tuesday night, as his ticket drew just 3 percent of the popular vote. Stein did worse with just one percent. But theoretically, at least, that was enough in some states to potentially make a difference in the outcome of the presidential election.
The election wasn’t settled until late Tuesday night or early Wednesday when the final tallies from Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin came in. Remarkably, the outcome of the Trump-Clinton clashes in all four states was decided by a single percentage point or less in Trump’s favor. Collectively, those states gave Trump about a third of the 270 electoral votes he needed nationwide to claim the presidency. In each case, Johnson and Stein together drew more than enough votes to have tipped the election one way or another.
In Florida, for example, with 29 electoral votes at stake, Trump drew 4,605,515 votes or 49 percent of the total, compared with 4,485,745 votes or 48 percent of the total for Clinton. Just 119,770 votes separated Trump and Clinton, while Johnson and Stein together attracted 270,026 votes -- or 2.7 percent of the total.
The results were a reminder of the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida when Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by a mere 537 votes. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, running as the Green Party nominee at the time, received 97,421 vote – which prompted claims that Nader played the Democratic spoiler and was responsible for Gore’s defeat. Nader has routinely disputed that claim and noted that many registered Democrats at the time chose to vote for Gore.
The dynamic was the same on Tuesday night in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three Midwestern states that at one time were considered a firewall for Democratic presidential candidates but abruptly turned from blue to red in helping to elect Trump.
In Michigan, for example, with 29 electoral votes, Trump appears to have defeated Clinton by three-tenths of a percentage point, 47.6 percent to 47.3 percent – a difference of just 11,837 popular votes. Johnson, meanwhile, picked up 173,021 votes or 3.6 percent, and Stein drew 50,686, or 1.1 percent.
Still, given Johnson’s small government bent as a Libertarian and his desire to eliminate the IRS and Social Security, it’s more likely that if the two main candidates were affected, Trump would take the hit more than Clinton. Stein, on the other hand, with a smaller piece of the pie, would more likely take a bite out of Clinton’s total because of her commitment to environmental reform.
Trump defeated Clinton in Pennsylvania, 48.8 percent to 47.67 percent, while Johnson and Stein together picked up 3.2 percent of the vote. In Wisconsin, Trump prevailed 48 percent to 47 percent, while Johnson and Stein together attracted five percent of the vote.
Johnson’srunning mate, former Republican Governor Bill Weld of Massachusetts, has frequently expressed a strong preference for Clinton over Trump and appeared conflicted on whether his party was inadvertently helping Trump become president.
Johnson claimed to be agnostic on the subject and insisted, “I’m not going to lose any sleep” over whether he hurt Clinton’s chances of winning the White House. He guessed that he would take as many votes away from Clinton as he did from Trump.
Political experts said at the time it was hard to predict how Johnson’s and Stein’s supporters would vote if they were cut loose. Johnson’s libertarian credo including limited military involvement overseas, smaller government and fewer regulations suggests that his backers might be more comfortable backing Trump than Clinton. And Stein’s far left views on spending and social programs – much in line with those of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – suggested that some of her followers would gravitate to Clinton.
A CBS News' exit poll provides grist for the argument that Johnson’s and Stein’s quixotic quest for the presidency drained critically important support from Clinton. The poll asked those identified as third party voters who they would support if the race came down to just Clinton and Trump.
Both Johnson and Stein supporters chose Clinton over Trump by about 25 percent to 15 percent. But 55 percent of Johnson's supporters said they would have skipped the election altogether if those were the only choices, as would 61 percent of Stein supporters.