If Hillary Clinton loses in November, two reasons will be Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green-party nominee Jill Stein. Almost every national polls shows Hillary doing worse when the two third-party candidates are added to the mix. Even Johnson, perhaps because he is emphasizing his “social tolerance” more than his “fiscal conservatism,” is hurting Hillary more than he’s harming Donald Trump.
Stein’s impact on the race is clear. Polls show the Massachusetts physician winning between 3 percent and 5 percent of the vote, with strong appeal to former Bernie Sanders voters and leftists of all stripes. On the ballot in 44 states this fall, she is this year’s Ralph Nader, who polled 2.7 percent nationwide as the Green party’s standard-bearer in 2000. It’s generally assumed he cost Al Gore the electoral votes of Florida — and thus the election.
The impact of Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, is more nuanced. Traditionally, people voting Libertarian are dismissed as “Republicans who like to have fun,” i.e., as right-wingers with liberal social views. But Johnson’s appeal is much broader than the million or so people who usually vote Libertarian in presidential contests. Nationally, Johnson polls between 5 percent (in a YouGov poll) and 13 percent (Quinnipiac) of the vote, scoring particularly well in Western states and among young people. He will appear on the ballot in all 50 states.
In the New York Times/CBS News poll released Thursday this week, Trump and Clinton are tied at 42 percent each among likely voters. Johnson captures 8 percent of the vote and Stein 4 percent. But among voters younger than 30, Clinton has 48 percent, Trump 29 percent, and 21 percent plan to vote for Johnson or Stein or not vote at all. That level of non-support for the Democratic candidate among young people is a warning signal for Clinton. By comparison, Barack Obama won 60 percent of their votes in 2012.
Some polls show Johnson doing far better with young voters than he does in the NYT/CBS poll. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed that among Millennials, Hillary is winning 31 percent, 29 percent favor Johnson, 26 percent pick Trump, and 15 percent choose Stein.
Clinton’s problem with young voters is that while few of them can remember the relative prosperity of Bill Clinton’s presidency, many of them associate her with a corrupt, dysfunctional political system. Stanley Greenberg, a pollster who worked for Bill Clinton, told the Los Angeles Times this summer, “They think she’s a typical politician . . . aligned with the elites . . . aligned with the big money and Wall Street.”
The strength that Johnson shows in Western states is also impressive, and it confirms that his presence in the race is more harmful to Hillary than to Trump. Earlier this month, the Washington Post conducted in-depth individual polls in all 50 states. Their polls were revealing in contested Western states. In a two-way contest, Hillary leads in Arizona by one point, in Colorado by two points, and in Nevada by five points. In a four-way race that includes Johnson and Stein, Trump leads by two points in Arizona, ties in Colorado, and is down three points in Nevada. Even New Mexico, Johnson’s home state, is much more competitive in a four-way race: Hillary leads by 14 in a two-way race and only eight in a four-way race.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Johnson and Stein have hit their ceiling of support. Neither candidate is likely to be in the presidential debates, which since 2000 have required any candidate participating to average 15 percent support in major polls. That caps their exposure to an electorate in which over half of potential voters know little or nothing about either of them. In addition, third-party candidates routinely lose support in the home stretch of a campaign when some people decide that voting for a non-major-party nominee could be a “wasted” vote.
The understanding that Johnson’s continued strength in polls could damage Hillary more than Trump has fueled the vicious ridicule he got from liberal pundits in the wake of his Aleppo flub.
That said, for now, Johnson is on a roll — even if he was recently candid enough to acknowledge on national TV that he didn’t recognize the name of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city. In just the last week, he has won endorsements from three major newspapers: the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina, and the Union Leader in New Hampshire. “We found him to be knowledgeable but unscripted, reasonable and good-humored, self-assured but free from arrogance, willing and able to address every question, consistent in his beliefs without being dogmatic, even-tempered, curious — and in all respects optimistically, realistically presidential,” wrote the editors of the Times-Dispatch.
The understanding that Johnson’s continued strength in polls could damage Hillary more than Trump has fueled the vicious ridicule he got from liberal media pundits in the wake of his Aleppo flub. If the presidential debates wind up convincing many voters that both Trump and Hillary are unacceptable, then Johnson’s support could stabilize or even rise. If that happens, any increase in his support is likely to hurt Hillary more. At that point, watch the mainstream media finally give him some serious attention — most of it highly negative.