Debunking the Myth that Gary Johnson is a 'Spoiler'

Created: 29 June, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
4 min read

Spoiler alert!

Is it Perot? Is it Nader? No, it’s Gary Johnson.

Like clockwork, immediately following the introduction of a political candidate from outside the two-party system, pundits do not hesitate to discuss how this one individual will “spoil” the election of one dominant campaign.

Will Johnson pull his support from the fallouts created by the #NeverTrump or the #NeverClinton campaigns?

Johnson has already fielded the question several times since winning the nomination of the Libertarian Party. He was even backed into a corner during a recent CNN town hall event about his personal preference between the two front-runners. Sharing the sentiments of disenfranchised voters nationwide, Johnson stated he was disinclined to support either.

But, in reality, Johnson is not a spoiler.

For the role of the spoiler to be true, one must start with the assumption that the two primary candidates represent unique platforms that differentiate from one another.

For this supposed effect to materialize, the aforementioned spoiler must represent a somewhat similar version of one of the two unique platforms represented by the two major parties. Then, on voting day, said spoiler begins to split votes with his ideological cohort, allowing for the supposed ideological opponent to win the election. As popular narrative dictates (though it is debatable), Nader stole left-leaning votes from Gore and Perot stole right-leaning votes from Bush Sr.

If these are the assumptions that one is working with, then Gary Johnson is far from a spoiler.

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For starters, Johnson represents a school of thought that is not even remotely close to the platforms established by the two major party front-runners. Johnson — who criticizes both candidates for their support of military interventionism, crony capitalism, excessive taxation, domestic surveillance, executive overreach, mass incarceration, and drug prohibition — is seemingly diametrically opposed to both Clinton and Trump. Since Trump and Clinton do not even come close to representing an ideological cohort of Johnson, vote splitting with just one particular side of the political equation is unlikely.

But Johnson’s platform is not so drastically different that he would alienate support from potential independent voters. Johnson’s pitch has consistently been that he is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, offering policy proposals that appeal to those who are enthusiastic of marriage equality and international diplomacy, but weary of the national debt and spending deficits. According to research by FiveThirtyEight, a sizable portion of voters identify with the broad brush strokes of Johnson’s messaging, even though they do not necessarily self-identify as libertarians.

“Libertarianism is the best of both parties—at least what the parties are supposed to be about,” Johnson stated on a recent Fox News interview.

From a polling perspective, he is not far from the truth: In a three way race between Johnson, Trump, and Clinton, Johnson consistently pulls votes away equally from both of the two mainstream candidates. Right-leaning voters (who are less than bullish about Trump's promotion of protectionism and trade wars) and left-leaning voters (who are skeptical of Clinton’s commitment to civil liberties and a peaceful foreign policy) appear to be scuttling away from the sinking ship that is the two-party system.

In addition to being a safe haven for the mass defection from the two parties, the Johnson campaign brings new voters to the table as well. Polls indicate that nearly a third of voters who plan on casting a ballot for Johnson would just sit out the election if they couldn’t vote for him.

Gary Johnson is the antithesis of the “spoiler”; he is the anti-spoiler — a candidate who will not feel the burden of some perceived electoral albatross upon his neck for “costing” the election for either of the two dominant candidates.

There is a fundamental flaw with the “spoiler effect” overall: It’s a lousy piece of rhetoric used to disenfranchise alternative political voices. Those with a vested interest in maintaining the crumbling infrastructure of the two-party system make third party candidates out to be some political version of Schrödinger's cat: They are both “fringe candidates” who cannot muster enough national support, but still manage to "steal" votes and sway elections at the same time.

In reality, the role of spoiler can only be attributed to the two-party system, which nominated two wildly unpopular and unappealing candidates for the presidency. It’s a shame Trump and Clinton are spoiling this election for Johnson, Jill Stein, other alternative presidential candidates, and the American voters.

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Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

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