Popularity polls for the Democratic and Republican nominees are at an all-time low. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the electorate is stuck with only two candidates. As part of the Sept. 22 edition of the Political Gabfest Slate Plus bonus segment, hosts Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz try to understand why some millennials are only interested in casting their votes for third-party candidates like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson.
Plotz, in particular, has some choice things to say about younger, liberal-leaning voters who refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton. Why does he feel so strongly that millennials should be more forgiving of her? To listen to his rant, click the player below:
Here is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
David Plotz: In Slate Plus today, we’re going to talk about third parties. Maybe we’ll get a bigger discussion of this, but we haven’t really touched on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein’s campaigns very much, and today we’re gonna touch on them. So Emily: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will not be in the debate on Monday. They’re polling too low. But Gary Johnson in some state polls is over 10 percent. He’s at, I think, 8 percent nationally. Jill Stein, Green Party, is 2 to 3 percent. Johnson is Libertarian. What is going on here with Johnson in particular?
Emily Bazelon: People don’t like the two major party candidates. They don’t think they have a real conservative, or they just don’t like Hillary Clinton and they’re searching for another alternative and in some ways it’s a totally healthy thing for democracy to have more than two choices, right? And yet in our democracy, which is completely set up for two major party candidates, these people end up in this destructive spoiler role that we really don’t need them. And it’s hard not to see them as just a destructive nuisance, even though I feel bad about saying that.
John Dickerson: Yeah and we have a lot of listeners—I think this is true based on the number of great emails I got from people explaining why they’re undecided—we have a lot of listeners who are in the Stein/Johnson camp because they’re so unhappy with the current crop of candidates. To give you some sense of how unhappy the electorate is with the choices, in 2008, 72 percent of the country said they were very happy with the two party nominees, McCain and Obama. That number is now 33 percent.
Dickerson: And that’s not always been so. You know, it’s not always been, Oh we’re disappointed with the two candidates. This is a new low.
Bazelon: Will it ever go up, I wonder? I guess it could.
Dickerson: Oh yeah absolutely. It went up with Obama from where it was.
Plotz: Yeah, but I bet if you looked historically, if you look back 100 years, it’s on a steady decline.
Dickerson: I would agree with that on something like average approval rating, which is to say that a president will only ever be so popular because partisanship is so ingrained that you have a group of people in the country in both parties that will refuse to ever say positive things about a president. So you’ll never see approval ratings beyond a certain—
Plotz: But this actually goes back to a larger issue which is not about approval ratings about particular politicians, it’s about belief in politics. And I think that we’ve had such a discrediting of the political system generally over the past two decades because of this concerted effort by a conservative [movement] to destroy the credibility in politics that government has lost support and people don’t believe in it. And they’re cynical about it and they won’t have belief in any politics.
Dickerson: I think the challenge to that argument, though, is the Obama campaign in 2008, in which the pitch was, I can improve the politics and We’re better than the politics we have. And he was an incredibly popular candidate, more popular than—
Plotz: But he wasn’t able to do that, and therefore people become ever more cynical about it and then it drops.
Dickerson: They do, but hope triumphs over experience. So I guess my point is, Obama was in 2008, which is after, as you said, long periods of talking about how governments were no good, and yet was still able to appeal to that portion—
Plotz: If hope triumphs over experience, why do we have the youngest voters being the least hopeful? The younger voters being the most idealistic—
Bazelon: We have candidates with longstanding histories and carrying baggage that has, like, stones in them, right? And that is something that is unusual, for both parties to have people who have been in the public view for such a long time, and have people generate incredibly negative feelings toward—
Plotz: I mean, there’s some of that. And it’s generational forgetting theory, which is that the reason why older millennials are still very solidly Democratic, as they were mobilized by Obama and they remember how bad it was under Bush, and the younger millennials don’t really remember that the Bush presidency was a fiasco and therefore haven’t connected to Democrats in the way you would have expected them to.
Bazelon: And it seems that they may not turn out for Hillary.
Dickerson: Let me just say, going back to my point about our listeners, which is that they’re incredibly disappointed with the current crop. I was really heartened to read through all the emails—so heartened that it’s been hard to write about because they’re so voluminous in people’s feelings about the country and what they want to have fixed, and their real investment in ideas and improvement. These are earnest people who basically look at the two choices and say, “These are a mess, but I feel a responsibility to vote. I feel like my vote sends a message.” So they are picking either Stein or Johnson, except there’s been a pretty consistent pattern of people who live in swing states or battleground states, who say, you know, “I would pick one of these two people, but I don’t want it throw the election to X.”
Bazelon: Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if we’ll see lower third-party in battleground states.
Dickerson: I think we will.
Plotz: But you know what, I’m glad we’re doing this as Slate Plus because the things I’m about to say would get me in so much trouble if this were going out to a larger audience.
Bazelon: Watch out! It’s still public, David!
Plotz: I know, I know. I think these people are so— I realize that my hectoring as a 46-year-old, cynical, been-through-it-all, anti-idealistic man has no credence and they’re just going to be like, “Fuck you, you old man.” I just think if they honestly think that Hillary Clinton, like there’s something deeply wrong with— she is a completely anodyne, average politician. Better, ‘cause she’s a woman and she’s had to do it twice as hard. She’s a completely anodyne, run-of-the-mill, good politician, will work in the system to get things done. And to think “Our problem is we have these two terrible choices, oh it’s so bad, we have these two terrible choices, but I’m going to cast a vote for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein because I do want things to get better in this country” ... We have not been given two terrible choices! We’ve been given one historically terrible choice and one completely average, competent, hardworking person who is working in a system which has been systematically fucked up and it’s so unfair for Hillary Clinton to be tarred with that! It just makes me furious, and you people are so wrong to not see that.
Dickerson: Strong letter to follow.
Bazelon: Yeah, the equivalent writing-off of these two candidates does seem to be an error of epic proportions.
Plotz: Alright, let’s leave it there, Slate Plus.