Third Party Candidates Unusually Strong In 2016–Should Be Included In Presidential Debates

Stein Johnson

With most voters unhappy with both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president, voters are more open to consider third party candidates. Even if not yet willing to say they will vote for one, many do believe third party candidates deserve a place in the debate. A Quinnipiac University poll shows 62 percent of likely voters say that Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson should be included in the debates this year. They weren’t asked about Jill Stein but, as the number of those supporting inclusion in the debates doesn’t correlate with plans to vote for Johnson, and is split among supporters of each major party, I bet a similar number of voters would also support include Stein.

Third party candidates are only included if they reach fifteen percent in the polls, but have difficulty reaching this number without exposure from the debates. While neither third party candidate is close to fifteen percent yet, third party candidates will very likely far better than usual this year. Most years the support for third party candidates has started to fall by now, and dwindles to near nothing by election day. FiveThirtyEight notes that we are not seeing that pattern so far this year:

Johnson is pulling in about 9 percent in the national polls, according to the FiveThirtyEight polls-only average. And his share in national polls has not fallen as we’ve gotten closer to the election. Indeed, Johnson’s support right now is higher than many other viable1I’m including third-party candidates who garnered a significant amount of media attention and were on the ballot in a substantial number of states. third-party candidates’ at a similar point in campaigns since 1948.

Johnson is pulling in at least twice as much of the vote as Henry Wallace or Strom Thurmond was in late August 1948, as Ralph Nader was in 2000 and certainly as Johnson himself was four years ago. Perhaps even more impressive is that Johnson is polling right about where Ross Perot was in 1996, when Perot had a nationally known name after his strong 1992 run. That said, Johnson is nowhere near the success of that 1992 campaign: Perot was pulling in 20 percent as a hypothetical candidate after leaving the 1992 campaign in July but before re-entering the race in October.

And notice: Most third-party candidates didn’t lose that much support between late summer and Election Day. Besides John Anderson in 1980, no candidate ended up finishing more than 3 percentage points below where they were polling in late August. The average drop-off is about 2 percentage points. Anderson, meanwhile, was already fading at this point in the campaign. In Gallup’s polling, for example, his support peaked at 24 percent in early summer and by now had dropped by 10 percentage points…

Why is Johnson’s support proving more durable than past third-party candidates’? The most obvious answer is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are extremely unpopular for major party presidential nominees; if third-party voters eventually settled on a major party nominee in past campaigns for fear of “wasting their vote,” they may be less willing to settle this year. (Of course, Johnson’s support may simply fade later than past third-party candidates.)

There is, however, some bad news for Johnson in his steady numbers: They’re not going up either. He’s showing no signs of reaching 15 percent in national polls, the threshold necessary to get into the debates. Still, if he ends up with 7 percent of the vote — as we’d expect based upon history and the current polls — the Libertarian Party will qualify for federal campaign funding in 2020, and Johnson will claim the highest share of the vote of any non-major party nominee in 20 years.

The final paragraph reveals one reason to support third party candidates even if they have no chance of winning this year–qualifying for federal matching funds in the next election, along with an outside chance of making the debates. Both third party candidates are working to increase their vote totals this year.  Johnson is starting to advertise in the battleground states and Jill Stein is increasing her ballot access, hoping to make the ballot in forty-seven states. The Nation ran a recent op-ed arguing that Stein should be part of a four-way debate.

Reason continues to look for reasons to hope that Gary Johnson will make the debate:

Looking for a glimmer of hope? Here’s one intriguing gap in the numerical record. Of the Commission on Presidential Debates’ determinative Big Five polls, in which Johnson has been averaging 10 percent instead of 9, none of them have produced results in the last three weeks. Beginning any minute now, we should have a much clearer idea whether the Libertarians are rising in the polls that actually matter.

If there has been no data for three weeks, there is the danger that Johnson’s support is following historical trends for third parties and falling, but it could be rising as Reason hopes. We can also hope that Jill Stein’s support is rising but has not yet been measured. With major party candidates as bad as Clinton and Trump, there is the possibility that more voters will reject them in favor of the alternatives.