Johnson and Stein cannot win, but they can help Trump win

Republican strategist Karl Rove wanted Maine’s electoral votes in 2000 but didn’t get them. A story broke five days before Election Day about George W. Bush’s charge for driving under the influence in Kennebunkport when he was 30. As Rove recounted, campaign polling had Bush ahead in Maine before the news. Winning Maine and several other close states “would have allowed him to win the White House without Florida.”

Again this year, Maine’s presidential possibilities are being noticed. Maine hasn’t gone red in a presidential race since George H.W. Bush beat Mike Dukakis in 1988. Some recent polls show a close statewide vote and a lead for Republican Donald Trump in the 2nd Congressional District. Trump’s poll standing is a few percentage points behind the statewide votes for Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. Democrat Hillary Clinton has a smaller lead than Barack Obama in polls taken four and eight years ago.

With Trump and Clinton behind past party nominees, the difference is made up by Gary Johnson and Jill Stein voters who, in the Boston Globe/Colby College/Survey USA poll, together attract 14 percent support. The Maine Beacon poll similarly found a Clinton lead in a two-way race with Trump but a virtual tie when Johnson and Stein are included. Past results like this led to this year’s referendum for ranked-choice voting, a system of ranking preferred candidates that offers to better reflect majority preferences.

Why is Clinton lagging Obama? One, Trump uses what columnist Mike Tipping called “LePage’s winning playbook”: anti-immigrant messages, a similar temperament and appeals to white working-class voters who have little personal contact with black and Latino people.

It is also about how Clinton is seen, in part because of negative media coverage even when facts are worse for Trump. For instance, the highly rated Clinton Foundation, which has saved millions of lives, has been the subject of far more and more negative stories than the Trump Foundation. Yet reporters note that emails between State Department officials and Clinton Foundation staff just revealed bad optics. In contrast, the Trump Foundation made an improper $25,000 campaign donation to Florida District Attorney Pam Bondi, who was then considering whether to file a suit against Trump University on behalf of students who said they were defrauded. Bondi then decided not to pursue a case. The Trump Foundation rented Trump properties at very high prices for charity events and purchased a six-foot tall $20,000 painting of Donald Trump for display in a Trump resort.

Whatever the reasons, Johnson and Stein voters matter. Stein voters, many of whom supported Bernie Sanders, see Clinton as their second choice. Some Sanders backers support Johnson, a libertarian whose views are quite different from Sanders’.

Sanders makes three main arguments for Clinton. One is that Clinton is far superior to Trump on paying for college, climate change, financial regulation, minimum wage, health care, court appointments, reproductive choice, Social Security and other issues. Moreover, Clinton supports a highly progressive Democratic platform.

Second, Sanders denounces Trump’s many lies, including Trump’s most prominent — birtherism. In 2011, Obama released his long form birth certificate but Trump continued to question his birthplace. Despite no new evidence, Trump finally acknowledged reality the other day. Sanders said, “[W]hat the birther movement was about was not being critical of Obama. . . It was delegitimizing the first African-American president.”

Third, Sanders argues that Trump is so unqualified, wrong on issues and poorly suited for the presidency that “this is not time for a protest vote.” Stein and Johnson cannot win but they can help Trump.

In 2000, Bush won Florida in part because of Ralph Nader voters picking Nader rather than Democrat Al Gore, and also because of a recount ended by the U.S. Supreme Court, a confusing ballot design in Palm Beach County that assigned votes for Pat Buchanan rather than Gore, and the wrongful disenfranchisement of African-Americans incorrectly placed on a list of felons.

As Sanders, Rove and the rest of us remember, what happened in 2000 had huge consequences for our nation and the world. A Gore win would have meant much earlier action on climate change, a greater focus on fighting nonstate terrorism, no Iraq War, different Supreme Court Justices, more support for education, infrastructure, health care, and many other differences. Then and now, every vote matters.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.