Evan McMullin, independent candidate for President of the United States, is remarkably unknown compared to the major party nominees. His notoriety pales even in comparison to Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. To put the public’s lack of awareness of McMullin into perspective, consider that the Politico article announcing Evan McMullin’s run for the presidency had to cite his LinkedIn page as a source for his professional background, and he had just 135 Twitter followers at the start of his campaign.
However, in an election year that has featured two candidates with record unfavorability ratings, many voters have considered casting a protest vote to a third-party candidate. Among eligible voters 25 and under, Hillary Clinton’s lead is less than half of what Obama’s was in 2012, according to Survey Monkey. Nationally, Stein and Johnson have professed themselves as the only alternatives for those fed up with the candidates of both major parties.
But in an oft-forgotten electoral state, a fifth candidate is making possibly the most realistic play for a third party to capture votes in the Electoral College. McMullin, 40, has taken a strong hold in the largely conservative, deeply Mormon state. A Mormon himself, he has made ripples through the political world in the last week with the release of a Y2 Analytics poll that pegged Clinton and Trump’s support at 26 percent apiece and McMullin just behind at 22 percent.
The country’s most prominent Mormon politician, 2012 GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who took home 73 percent of Utah’s vote in 2012, has spent much of his time this election cycle denouncing Trump. This opposition has opened has opened Utah’s 5 electoral college votes for McMullin, whose moderate views and religious background, in particular in contrast with Trump, play well with Utah’s voters.
A FiveThirtyEight article has detailed the importance of his strength in Utah, as a McMullin victory in Utah could throw the Electoral College into a frenzy if neither candidate can secure the 270 votes needed to keep an election from going to the House of Representatives. In this scenario, McMullin could offer himself to the House as a compromise candidate between Trump and Clinton, a viable solution as elite Republicans are not known for their support for their nominee and they control the House.
But who is this man? McMullin’s website labels him as a principled, conservative leader, buzzwords clearly meant to emphasize his differences with the Trump brand of conservatism. He spent eleven years spearheading counterterrorism initiatives at the CIA after graduating from Utah’s Brigham Young University and the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business. More recently, he has served as the Chief Policy Director for the House Republican Conference.
His policy views reflect those of a more traditional conservative—he opposes restrictions on gun rights, seeks an interventionist foreign policy, and is heavily pro-life. Following this motif, he has avoided the popular turn toward protectionism stemming from both major parties’ standard bearers, maintaining instead a call for more open trade and collaboration with our allies. Instead of the cacophonous spew of insults that has become common in Trump’s GOP, McMullin is focused on the policy chops that he believes qualify himself for the presidency, a fitting campaign theme for a former policy director.
However, the relative obscurity in which McMullin operates is indicative of the political realm in which America operates. No third party candidate has won a vote in the electoral college since 1972, when the newly formed Libertarian Party won one vote from a faithless elector in Virginia. The last major new party to emerge from the depths of obscurity was the Republican Party; that was in the middle of the nineteenth century.
This cycle, the third party candidates have had their fair share of gaffes. Johnson did not know what Aleppo, the refugee capital of Syria, was, and he failed to name a single foreign leader in a Town Hall-style event with MSNBC host Chris Matthews. For her part, Stein, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, has waffled on the issue of vaccinations, saying that the “people have real questions” before walking that statement back to The Washington Post. A lack of legitimate opposition has fueled the dominance of the two major political parties, even with an electorate that is largely dissatisfied with both candidates. However, 52 percent still have no opinion of Johnson, and 56 percent have no opinion of Stein. Even in this political climate, there are no clear alternatives to either candidate. The hopes for a third candidate are pinned only on an outside shot of a politically obscure candidate winning one state.
This presents a problematic situation to our political system. With the inclusion of additional candidates up and down the ballot, a campaign season that has been largely focused on ad hominem attacks concerning past infidelities, foundation ethics, and Bill Clinton (somewhat viable topics, but not to the extent to which they have been discussed) could instead focus on policies that will affect everyday people. The second presidential debate offered little substance to its 69 million viewers. Potentially, the inclusion of a third, policy-driven candidate could mold the personal vitriol into substantive discussion.
There is historical context for third and even fourth candidates competing, although that was outside of the entrenched political parties. Just as in the 1820s, the competing candidacies of Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson provided for greater political discourse, Ross Perot refocused the political debate of the 1990s. Although we may be several election cycles from a prominent third party, the presence of another group to hold the two current major political parties accountable would be beneficial to our current system of governance.