The Real Reason Trump Lost in 2020

While arrogantly claiming to be the party of democracy, Democrats are constantly complaining that Republicans are impeding it. By their narrative, the United States is experiencing “democratic backsliding” because “MAGA Republicans” disrespect the electoral system. This was a major trope in Joe Biden’s Philadelphia speech last week.

But if any party is guilty of undermining democracy, it is the Democratic Party.

Consider, for example, the way Democrats use their well-organized political machine to keep third-party “spoilers” off ballots. They’ve used every sleazy lawsuit possible to prevent the left-wing Green Party from being an Election Day option for voters. They did this in 2020 and they are continuing to do it with the 2022 midterms.

Right now, in North Carolina, the Green Party is fighting in court to reverse the Democratic-controlled Board of Elections’ decision to keep the Greens’ U.S. Senate candidate, Matthew Hoh, off the November ballot. The board alleges too many of Hoh’s petition signatures are illegitimate. While the Greens admit a fraction of their signatures were collected by an outside firm, most of them were collected by their own volunteers and have been properly vetted. The board is using a perception of impropriety to allege that Hoh does not qualify for November ballot access. 

If this was merely an isolated incident, one might think the North Carolina Board of Elections had sufficient cause to deny the Greens ballot access in this one election. But the Hoh case is part of a long-running pattern that began well before even the 2020 election. Ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader ran for president on the Green Party ticket, and most recently in 2016 when Jill Stein was the Green Party’s spoiler candidate, Democrats have sought to avoid repeating the things that let Republicans achieve victories in key battleground states.

Clearly, both big parties have played this game. There have been instances in which the Republicans have sought to prevent the Libertarian Party from gaining ballot access for similar reasons. But those efforts have almost always resulted in failure. 

For example, claiming ineligibility, the Republicans recently asked the Texas Supreme Court to remove 23 Libertarian candidates from the November ballot, but their case was unsuccessful. The Democrats, however, have not only attempted to keep the Greens off ballots far more often than Republicans have tried the same scheme against the Libertarians, but they have also been more successful.

In 2016, the Democrats were so confident that Hillary Clinton would win that they made no effort to prevent Green Party nominee Jill Stein from appearing on ballots. Stein’s name was on all but six of the 51 ballots that year. Clinton’s defeat was a wake-up call to the Democrats about just how closely split the country had become. They saw from the post-election data that had Stein not been an option in key battleground states, Clinton would have been elected president.

Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by 44,292 votes. It is safe to say that most of the Green Party’s 49,941 votes would have gone to Clinton had Stein not been on the ballot. Similarly in Wisconsin, where Trump won the state by 22,748 votes, Stein’s 31,072 votes likely would have carried Clinton to victory there, too. Even more glaring is Michigan, where Stein’s 51,463 votes would have been more than enough for the Democrats to compensate for Clinton’s 10,704 vote deficit.

Now consider the 2020 election. Joe Biden won all three of those contested states and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins did not appear on ballots in either Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. In fact, Hawkins’ name was missing from 20 of the 51 ballots. One such state was Arizona, where Trump lost by a paltry 10,457 votes. Had Hawkins been on the ballot rather than just receiving a little more than 1,000 write-in votes, it could have made all the difference for Trump.

Of course, the Democratic Party is now aware of the degree to which the Green Party is an election spoiler. Knowing this, officials made sure voters did not get a chance to vote Green by legally challenging their applications for ballot access. In Pennsylvania, Democrats successfully fought to get the state Supreme Court to knock the Greens off the ballot over the minor technicality that the party did not hand deliver its filing papers. Apparently, for the Democratic Party, a nationwide election can be done safely by mail, but mailing in an election filing is beyond the pale. Likewise, in Wisconsin, the state supreme court ruled that the Greens could not be on the ballot because of petition “discrepancies.”

An alternative conclusion is that the COVID-19 pandemic made it significantly more difficult for third parties to gather enough petition signatures, and that is why the Greens only made 31 ballots. But the problem with that argument is that, notwithstanding the pandemic and despite the Republican Party also benefiting by keeping their own third-party spoilers off the ballots, the Libertarian Party still managed to get their nominee, Jo Jorgenson, on all 51 ballots in 2020.

Maybe the Republicans need to take a closer look at the Democrats’ legal strategy. Or maybe Republicans need better judges. 

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About Adam L. Fuller

Adam L. Fuller is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images