The 2016 election’s unexpected fringe benefits
A presidential race with two unpopular big ticket candidates strengthens third party appeal in California
There’s been a shift in America. A lifting of the fog. Voters—particularly young ones—no longer recoil at the word “socialism.” And the establishment sees it.
The so-called “fringe” candidates see it, too.
“There’s much more acceptance,” said socialist presidential candidate Gloria La Riva. “There’s no automatic rejection, and there certainly isn’t fear.”
La Riva’s campaign opened its Sacramento headquarters last September in a squat, yellow building on Florin Road in south Sacramento—the newest neighbors of Psychic Readings By: Sara.
A longtime political activist who’s made runs for governor of California, mayor of San Francisco and the United States Congress, this year La Riva’s gotten her name placed on eight state ballots. In California she’s on the Peace and Freedom ticket with longtime Native American activist (and one of the central leaders in the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation in South Dakota) Dennis Banks.
Their platform centers on the rights of the working class and poor.
On a recent Saturday in this office, La Riva campaign coordinator Estevan Hernandez sat amid Palestinian and Cuban flags, condemning the election’s frontrunners.
“Donald Trump [is] hated by many people for his ignorance and his racism and his sexism. But Hillary Clinton is almost as equally hated for her lies and her money that she takes from Wall Street and the wars that she gets us into,” said Hernandez, 27. “People are tired of the same old thing—especially this election.”
It’s a tough point to refute.
The 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential primaries paired the American people with candidates that many simply do not like. And, as a result in California and beyond, third party campaigns are enjoying a boost in presidential polling not seen since 1992.
For those paying attention, the rise of a more radical Sacramento isn’t all that surprising. From homeless rights struggles to police brutality marches to student occupations—a mass of frustrated residents has been coalescing for years into a determined, focused bloc.
“We came from the Student Movement,” said Yeimi Lopez, 27, of the Sacramento socialists who opened La Riva’s central valley office. “I came from immigrants’ rights struggle, we have some folks who came from the anti-war struggle, some folks who came from the police brutality struggle.”
And the more they struggled against things, the more they realized they wanted to fight for something as well. “We wanted to show that there’s another way,” Hernandez said.
But would anyone listen?
The most striking thing about the Public Policy Institute of California’s September presidential poll wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s commanding 16-point state lead on Donald Trump, but the 10 percent of likely voters supporting Libertarian Gary Johnson and the 5 percent supporting Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Another 2 percent said they would be voting for someone else.
That’s about one in six California voters supporting candidates not named Clinton or Trump.
“It’s pretty sizable from what we’ve seen in the past,” said Dean Bonner, associate survey director at PPIC.
In contrast, in September 2008, just 3 percent of likely voters said they were voting for someone other than Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain. Such low numbers for third party tickets may be related to the fact that no outside candidates were polling high enough to be mentioned by name in the 2008 survey.
It could also go beyond that.
“A majority of people are not satisfied with the candidates. And that wasn’t the case in September of 2008 and 2012,” Bonner said. In California this year, just 42 percent of voters said they were satisfied with their choice in candidates. In September 2008, 64 percent were satisfied. “The higher levels of ’not satisfied’ are where you see some of the higher levels of voting for third party,” Bonner added.
One such voter is UCLA sociology professor Gabriel Rossman, who plans to support either Johnson or Utah’s upstart conservative candidate, Evan McMullin.
“Absolutely not Trump,” he said.
Rossman has voted for candidates in both major parties the past four presidential elections. While he’d prefer not to vote for a Democrat this year, he says he doesn’t like the alternative. “If Romney were running I would be voting for him,” Rossman said. “But he’s not.”
Distaste for the candidates runs deep.
Gallup’s most recent national favorability ratings—conducted before the FBI announced it was reviewing new emails potentially related to Clinton—show her at 40 percent favorable and 55 percent unfavorable. Trump hovers at 31 percent favorable and 64 percent unfavorable. These are record-shattering lows.
“We’ve never seen both nominees so highly unliked,” said Mindy Romero, director of the UC Davis California Civic Engagement Project. “Some of those people are thinking about, ’If I’m going to vote, is there somebody else on the ballot that is palatable to me? That I can feel good about?’”
Trump’s unpalatability is pretty straightforward. He’s bragged about sexually assaulting women, championed racist and xenophobic policies and threatened to throw his political rival in jail. In recent weeks nearly a dozen women have come forward with sexual assault allegations against him.
Even hardline California Republicans like Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who is running against democratic Rep. Ami Bera for his seat in Congress, have had to pull their Trump endorsements. Many conservative voters instead find appeal in Johnson.
Clinton’s problem is more nuanced. Supporters of the Green Party’s Stein and the socialists’ La Riva tack Hillary to establishment politics, of course. But they also work to mark her as just as dangerous as The Donald.
“It’s disturbing that people are worried what Trump will do to people in America, but what will Hillary do to people in other parts of the world?” said activist James Lee “Faygo” Clark in reference to U.S. military action abroad during Clinton’s time as Secretary of State and her vote for the Iraq War as a New York senator.
“A loss of life is a loss of life,” he said.
Clark says he’s supported Stein since her 2012 run for president, during which she garnered support from many Occupy Wall Street activists as one of the first politicians to adopt their rhetoric and visit their protests. Progressive voters—including young Bernie Sanders supporters who’ve vowed to never back Hillary—find appeal in both Stein and La Riva’s anti-war, anti-corporate and pro-working-class platforms.
“There’s this phenomenon with young people where the young Bernie folks are having a really difficult time coming on board the Clinton train,” Romero said.
That fits with the numbers. In the PPIC’s September 2016 poll, 72 percent of likely voters aged 18-34 were not satisfied with the candidates.
“That same group of people, 32 percent are saying they would vote for either the Libertarian ticket or Green ticket,” Bonner said. “That’s one in three.”
And the trend is national. In an August poll, the Pew Research Center found that, among likely voters 30 and younger, 19 percent supported Johnson and 9 percent Stein. Combined, Clinton and Trump had support from just 65 percent of young voters.
So is there a future for third-party politics in California?
Bonner can’t definitively answer, given the deep general dissatisfaction with this year’s major tickets. But as young voters get older, he wondered: “How are their policy preferences going to equate to candidates? And are they not going to be satisfied with the two-party system, given that we had this election that in many ways has created this very tumultuous situation with how they view politics?”
“They view the role of government differently than older people,” he added.
Above all, Romero wants to see young Californians engaged. In 2014, only 8.2 percent of eligible youth aged 18-24 voted. Could a year like 2016, marked by such a negative campaign and two unfavorable candidates, leave an increasing share of the population feeling disconnected from the process?
And then there’s California’s blanket primary system enacted after 2010’s Proposition 14. In this system, only the two candidates with the most votes from the spring primaries make the fall ballot in nonpresidential races, regardless of party affiliation. Some have expressed concern that this new system will leave third-party candidates off general election ballots (and, thus, third-party-inclined voters disenchanted and disengaged in the fall).
But third-party backers can point to some victories. The Green Party lists 64 Californians holding office under their ticket on their website. Libertarians claim 16 California officeholders. And the rise of socialist Kshama Sawant to Seattle’s city council proved a powerful catalyst for the Fight for $15 nationwide.
“We’re seeing that there’s a huge disconnect between what we really need for ourselves and what our government is offering us,” said 25-year-old Nyree Hall at La Riva’s Sacramento office in early October. “So as we start getting older there’s going to be more socialists in the local government. I believe that we’re turning the government in our favor.”