Syracuse's Howie Hawkins on his 30-state presidential bid: I'm not a spoiler
Howie Hawkins says he hears almost every day from well-known environmental advocates who plead with him not to spoil the 2020 presidential election.
"I'm getting a lot of celebrity calls trying to persuade me to stand down in the swing states," said Hawkins, the Syracuse activist who has never been elected to public office in 24 previous attempts.
By Mark Weiner
October 5, 2020
But now that he's the Green Party candidate for president, some prominent supporters of the movement openly worry he will draw votes from Joe Biden and help President Donald Trump win a second term.
Hawkins is on the ballot in 30 states, representing 73% of American voters and 381 electoral votes. He's also on the ballot in at least three battleground states where polls show Biden and Trump in a dead heat: Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.
Four years ago, some Democrats blamed Green presidential candidate Jill Stein for Hillary Clinton's razor-thin losses to Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Stein won more votes in each of those states than the margin between Clinton and Trump.
Many still blame consumer advocate Ralph Nader for tipping Florida's vote in 2000 to George W. Bush, enabling the Republican to beat Vice President Al Gore, the Democrat.
Hawkins bristles at the suggestion that swing states could hinge on how effectively he campaigns this year. He said his mission is simply to advance the Green Party's agenda. He said most of his voters would sit out this race if the Greens didn't have a candidate.
Hawkins, 67, said the landscape is much different for the Green Party this year than four years ago.
Stein was on the ballot in 44 states in 2016. Hawkins is on 30. He blames legal challenges from Democrats (who succeeded in keeping him off the ballot in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) and the difficulty of passing nominating petitions during the coronavirus pandemic.
In his failed attempt to get on the Wisconsin ballot, Hawkins accepted help from a law firm with ties to Republicans. Hawkins said he couldn't find any Democratic lawyers willing to take the case.
Despite accepting help from Republican-leaning attorneys, Hawkins says he does not expect to do political damage to the Democratic nominee.
"I'm concerned about getting Trump out of there, but I'm not a spoiler," Hawkins said. "If anybody is a spoiler, it's Biden and the Democrats."
Hawkins said he blames Democrats for not advocating for election reforms after George W. Bush and Trump lost the popular vote in 2000 and 2016 but won the presidency in the Electoral College count.
"Instead of fighting for that, they fight to keep the Green Party off the ballot," Hawkins said of Democrats.
The Green Party has pushed to replace the Electoral College system with ranked-choice voting since Nader ran as the Green candidate in 2000. Bush won the presidency by squeaking past Gore by 537 votes in Florida that year (Nader had almost 100,000 votes in the state).
With a national popular vote by ranked-choice, each voter would be asked to mark their presidential choices on the ballot in order of preference. Voters in Maine will use that system in November.
If no candidate wins the majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those who voted for that candidate have their second choice counted. Ranked voting would assure the winner won the popular voting, Hawkins said.
Hawkins will be on the ballot in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio – key swing states where polls show Trump and Biden in a dead heat. He will also be in the ballot in states like Iowa and Texas that are still close.
Hawkins said he understands why some Green Party supporters in those states feel too much is at stake in this election to vote for him. He acknowledges he has no chance of winning any state.
"If your conscience tells you – and your thinking tells you – that you have to vote for Biden to stop Trump, I understand," Hawkins said. "I'm not going to hold it against you. Let's figure out how to advance our agenda after the election."
But Hawkins rejects the idea that Greens, who tend to be progressive and identify more with Democrats, can tip any state in favor of Trump. He said polling has shown most Greens wouldn't otherwise vote if they didn't have a choice in the presidential election.
In 2016, a CBS News national exit poll found 61% of Stein's voters wouldn't have voted without a Green Party candidate on the ballot.
About 25% of Stein voters said they would have chosen Clinton if they didn't have a Green Party choice; 14% said they would have voted for Trump.
Studies have shown that third party and independent candidates take some votes from both major political parties in presidential elections, said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies third-party candidates.
"It's a much more balanced impact on the major parties than people assume," Burden said.
"People who are attracted to the alternative candidates tend not to be attracted to the two major parties," Burden said. "They are unpredictable. They tend to float from one candidate to another."
Typically, half of the people who vote for third-party candidates say they would not have otherwise voted, he said.
"We see this for all third-party candidates," Burden said. "They seem to be effective at turning out new voters. I think that causes some observers to make incorrect conclusions about what would have happened if third-party candidates had not run."
But every so often, as Nader did in Florida in 2000, a third-party candidate does help tip an election, Burden said.
That could be the case in a state like North Carolina this year. A New York Times-Siena College poll in September found Biden (45%) and Trump (44%) in a dead heat in the state followed by Libertarian Jo Jorgensen (2%) and Hawkins (1%).
Libertarian candidates tend to draw more support from Republicans than Democrats, which could cancel out any votes the Green Party takes away from Democrats in such close races, Burden said.
Still, it's too close for comfort for some on the left who worry about having Hawkins on the ballot in swing states.
Prominent climate activist and author Bill McKibben advised Hawkins and the Green Party in an April 15 commentary in The New Yorker to stand down in six or seven battleground states.
McKibben wrote that "most climate activists I know just shake their heads at the thought of a third-party challenge this November." He said Hawkins and the party should instead campaign for ranked-choice voting.
Hawkins rejected the idea and said nobody should blame the Green Party if Biden can't maintain his lead in swing states.
"If Trump wins in some swing state, I'd be mad as hell at Biden," Hawkins said. "Biden should win by a landslide in the Electoral College. At this point, I think the only way Trump can win is if he suppresses the mail-in ballots."
Hawkins said he's not the threat that some Democrats fear. He has struggled to raise $300,000 for a bare-bones campaign. The few campaign ads that he can afford appear on Facebook. His campaign staff has hovered between eight and 12 people, who are paid stipends instead of salaries.
Hawkins drives himself to campaign appearances (his 2014 Hyundai Elantra hit 100,000 miles on a trip last week from Syracuse to Ohio), buys his own gas and meals, and stays with supporters rather than in hotels.
He said the party's goals are simple: Let voters know that Greens have a plan to address life-and-death issues facing voters – climate change, stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and confronting racism and inequality.
Hawkins said his goal is to win enough votes to keep the Green Party ballot line in 21 states, including New York.
And if things go really well, Hawkins said, he'd like to receive more votes than Trump in the District of Columbia. The president received only 4% of the vote in the nation's capital in 2016.
"I want to beat Trump in D.C.," Hawkins said. "That would be a nice victory."