On election night and the next morning, when President Trump was leading in the early vote count in more states than expected, Democrats were yelling at libertarians on Twitter that “you kept Trump in office.”
As Biden moved ahead in the battleground states, conservatives on Facebook and Twitter–including former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker–were complaining that libertarians cost Trump the election because Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen was getting more votes than the margin between Trump and Biden in closely divided states.
Both sides seemed to assume that their candidate should have gotten the votes of libertarians, and would have had the Libertarian Party not run a candidate, and that they were being wrongly deprived of their rightful property. Of course, elections give every voter the right and the opportunity to express their preferences by voting for the candidate they choose.
But what do we really know about where those votes might have gone?
In 2016 about 8 million voters, or 6 percent, voted for candidates other than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, got more than half of that, about 4.5 million votes. Jill Stein of the Green Party got 1.5 million. This year it looks like “other” votes will amount to only about 3 million, or just under 2 percent. So about 3.7 million people who voted Libertarian, Green, or for anti‐Trump conservative Evan McMullin didn’t do so in 2020.
So where did those votes go? We do have some polling evidence.
In 2016, a CBS exit poll asked Johnson supporters who they would have voted for in just a two‐candidate race. Twenty‐five percent said Hillary Clinton, 15 percent Trump, and 55 percent said they wouldn’t have voted at all. (Hat tip to Matt Welch for rounding up all these polls.)
In October of this year a Pew Research poll asked people who had voted for a third‐party candidate in 2016 what they planned to do in 2020: 49 percent said they leaned toward or supported Biden, while 26 percent said they supported Trump. A quarter said they planned to vote for a third‐party candidate again in 2020. If we assume that the 3/4 of voters who voted Green in 2016 but not in 2020 most likely voted for Biden, that might leave libertarians fairly evenly split among Biden, Trump, and Jorgensen. The New York Times exit poll of 15,590 voters showed that of the 5 percent of respondents who voted third‐party in 2016, 60 percent said they preferred Biden and 25 percent went Trump, leaving about 15 percent sticking with a third‐party vote.
A pre‐election New York Times/Siena College poll of 2016 Johnson voters in six northern battleground states showed 38 percent for Biden, 29 percent for Jorgensen, and 14 percent for Trump. In the end, if you ask whether Jo Jorgensen’s 1.8 million or so votes, or more specifically her votes in states decided by narrow margins, swung the election, the answer is no: had there been no Libertarian on the ballot, those voters would have been split among Biden, Trump, and not voting, with a tilt toward Biden (or maybe “against Trump”).
As it happens, these conclusions are similar to those from the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli, with Libertarian Robert Sarvis rolling up almost three times as many votes as the margin between them. As Sean Davis demonstrated, exit polls showed that liberals voted for Sarvis at more than twice the rate that conservatives did. Sarvis received only 3 percent of the votes of self‐described conservatives, but he garnered 7 percent of liberals and 10 percent of moderates, the largest ideological bloc in the state. Sarvis got two‐thirds of his vote from the 44 percent of voters who identified themselves as moderate. Hey, the libertarian center!
Meanwhile, Jorgensen, a Clemson professor little known outside the LP, has gotten at least 1,762,000 votes, 1.2 percent of a high turnout. That’s down by about 2/3 in percentage terms from the Johnson‐Weld total in 2016, but it’s more votes and a higher percentage than any other LP presidential ticket. Is her vote a new, higher baseline for LP? Maybe. Between 1980, when Ed Clark got 1.06 percent, and 2012, when Johnson got 0.99 percent, LP presidential candidates never broke 0.5 percent. Maybe the same decline will happen. But the party has now received well over a million votes for three elections in a row, and has more state ballot lines and registered voters than ever before.