The Green Party effect in the US 2016 Election

In the long shadow of Donald Trump’s victory in the November 8th election, Jill Stein’s bid as Green Party Presidential candidate is likely to be a forgotten footnote to a momentous turning point in US history. 

Polling at around two percent before the election the Greens had campaigned hard through social media and alternative news sources to build on the radical, anti-establishment popularity of Bernie Sanders, especially amongst young voters. They hoped to win five percent of the vote which would have unlocked automatic ballot access in many states and much needed campaign funding worth up to $10 million. However, while over a million people voted Green on November 8th, an improvement on the last election, this still only represented around one percent of the popular vote.

Yet that one percent may have been decisive. In the key battleground states of Wisconsin and Michigan, Stein’s vote total was more than Trump’s margin of victory. Of course, this does not mean Green voters would have turned up to vote for Clinton had Stein not been on the ballot. As Jessica McBride notes in a state by state analysis for Heavy.comthe combined third party vote in Florida and Pennsylvania was also more than Trump’s margin of victory, but Gary Johnson’s appeal was more likely with Republicans than Democrats. Second guessing US voters’ intentions retrospectively is impossible, but the perceived threat that Stein might pull enough Democrat voters away from Hillary Clinton – in the way that Ralph Nader did in the 2000 Bush-Gore contest – never really materialised. 

This was not the nail-bitingly close election result of 2000 where the Green vote arguably cost the Al Gore the Presidency. Instead, pollsters watched their predictions of a Clinton win reduced to worthless confetti (yet again). Trump picked up white working-class votes former Democrat strongholds, and benefitted from relatively low enthusiasm and Democrat turnout, especially in the so-called rustbelt states afflicted by economic decline and poverty. 

A poll recently published in The Independent claimed that Bernie Sanders would have ‘crushed’ Trump by 56-44 had he been the Democrat Presidential candidate. While the poll, commissioned by Sanders supporting Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, is almost certainly over-optimistic, it is certainly the case that Millennial enthusiasm for Bernie’s socialist message – identical in many key respects to that of the Greens – did not easily translate into support for Hillary Clinton. It also did not translate into the kind of mass enthusiasm for Green Party policies that might have transformed the Party into a major player.

The next four years could see a progressive alliance of Democrats and Greens fighting Trump on issues of social and environmental justice – enthusing young voters to come out and defeat Trump in 2020. However, Green antipathy to the Democratic Party means that this is unlikely even with a left-leaning environmentalist at the head of the party. Much depends on the direction of the Democrats – either behind more progressive figures such as Elizabeth Warren or back towards more ‘establishment’ leaders such as Andrew Cuomo. Either way, the Greens may prove big enough to dent Democrat fortunes again, but not big enough to make the break through needed to challenge America’s two party stranglehold on politics.