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Story highlights

Two third-party candidates made earnest, longshot bids for the White House

They didn't manage to capture that many votes, but they may have tipped the race

(CNN) —  

Neither Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson nor the Green Party’s Jill Stein managed to make a dent in the Electoral College, but they did post a significant enough showing in several states arguably to help elect Donald Trump.

Trump won 290 Electoral College votes to 232 for Hillary Clinton, as of Wednesday evening, with Clinton topping him in the popular vote. But had the Democrats managed to capture the bulk of third-party voters in some of the closest contests – Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16) and Florida (29) – Clinton would have defeated Trump by earning 307 Electoral College votes, enough to secure the presidency.

The entire scenario conjures up memories of Ralph Nader’s Green Party run in 2000. Nader’s share of the vote in that year’s razor-thin Florida contest was 1.63%, according to the final totals from the Federal Election Commission. Bush won the state by just .05%, which tipped the Electoral College in his favor. (Nader has for years denied his candidacy played a role in Bush’s 2000 victory.)

It’s impossible to know how an election could have gone under hypothetical scenarios, but the Johnson campaign regularly said they thought they were pulling support equally from would-be Trump supporters and would-be Clinton voters. Stein’s campaign, meanwhile, made a constant, explicit appeal to disenchanted Democrats and former supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

If Johnson and Stein weren’t in the race, it’s also possible many of their supporters may have stayed home. But if about half of Johnson’s supporters would have voted for Clinton over Trump, and if most of Stein’s supporters broke for the Democrats, the electoral map would have been decidedly different.

For what it’s worth, both Johnson and Stein have in repeated interviews with CNN taken offense at the notion they would spoil the race.

Johnson said he hoped his candidacy would wipe out the two-party system and, in a recent MSNBC appearance, literally held his nose shut at the mention of Clinton and Trump. Stein said she would not “sleep well” in the event of a Clinton or Trump presidency and suggested Clinton would be more likely to start a nuclear war than the current president-elect.

However, Johnson’s running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, took a different tack. He defended Clinton regularly and argued Trump was a unique threat to the United States.

Johnson campaign spokesman Joe Hunter told CNN on Thursday “the Johnson/Weld campaign was clearly a factor” and cited Colorado as a place where the Libertarian presidential campaign may have actually benefited Clinton.

“To the extent that independents and others found a voice through our campaign, were heard, and impacted the outcome, that is success – and ultimately an important step toward breaking the two-party hold on the system,” Hunter said.

Also in a response on Thursday, Stein campaign press director Meleiza Figueroa dismissed any impact the Green Party may have had on the presidential election, citing the campaign’s marginal showing in battleground states.

“There is no way statistically we could have been a “spoiler” for the outcome of the election,” Figueroa said. “In any case, the solution to a potential ‘spoiler’ scenario should never be to silence political opposition and limit democracy to two corporate-sponsored choices.”

Here’s the breakdown of what might have been, based on available totals for the key states:

Florida (29 electoral votes)

Trump stood 119,770 votes ahead of Clinton, with 99% of the vote in Wednesday evening. The total support for Johnson and Stein was 270,026 votes – well more than double Trump’s margin of victory. CNN projected a Trump victory here.

If half of Johnson’s supporters and all of Stein’s supporters had voted Clinton, it would have flipped the state.

Michigan (16 electoral votes)

Trump stood 11,837 votes ahead of Clinton, with 96% of the vote in Wednesday evening. The total support for Johnson and Stein was 223,707 votes – almost 20 times more than the margin as of this writing. CNN has not yet projected a victory here.

If half of Johnson’s supporters and all of Stein’s supporters had voted Clinton, it could have delivered a Democratic win here.

Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes)

Trump stood 68,236 votes ahead of Clinton, with 99% of the vote in Wednesday evening. The total support for Johnson and Stein was 191,565 – almost three times Trump’s margin of victory. CNN projected a Trump victory here.

If half of Johnson’s supporters and all of Stein’s supporters had voted Clinton, it would have flipped the state.

Wisconsin (10 electoral votes)

Trump stood 27,257 votes ahead of Clinton, with 95% of the vote in Wednesday evening. The total support for Johnson and Stein was 137,422 votes – about five times Trump’s margin of victory. CNN projected a Trump victory here.

If half of Johnson’s supporters and all of Stein’s supporters had voted Clinton, it would have flipped the state.