The Campaign Spot

Why the Third-Party/Independent Candidates Will Probably Fade

In the House of Representatives elections in 2010, there were 44.8 million votes cast for Republican candidates and 38.9 million votes cast for Democratic candidates — a 51.7 percent to 44.9 percent split.

Put another way, 96.6 percent of the votes cast went to the two major parties.

The final generic ballot average on RealClearPolitics that year was 50.7 percent to 41.3 percent — in the general ballpark.

Notice that the two major parties made up 92 percent of that final polling average but 96.6 percent on Election Day. The folks who answered either “I don’t know” or third-party options made up 5 percent in Gallup’s final 2010 poll, 6 percent in Reuters-Ipsos, 10 percent in Pew Research, 10 percent in Rasmussen, 6 percent in CNN, 13 percent in Fox News, and 8 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll.

And then they were 3.4 percent on Election Day. Some of those undecided or third-party backers end up not voting. Some shift to one of the two major parties.

Right now, the RCP average on the generic ballot is 46.3 percent for Republicans to 43.9 percent — meaning the two major parties make up 90.2 percent of the vote.

We hear a lot about how Americans are angry at Washington, angry at both parties, more open to third-party or independent candidates than ever before, and so on. But history suggests that as Election Day approaches, some portion of the people telling pollsters that they are going to vote for the third-party or independent candidates will end up backing either the Republican or the Democrat. Maybe some of these people feel afraid they’ll be “wasting” their vote, or they begin to feel more strongly about their preference between the two leading candidates. There’s a long history of independent or third-party candidates underperforming on Election Day in the not-so-distant past: Chris Daggett in New Jersey, Tom Horner in Minnesota, Tim Cahill in Massachusetts. Robert Sarvis in Virginia last year. Gary Johnson’s presidential bid in 2012, polling at 5 percent in CNN’s final poll, 1.2 percent on Election Day.

This morning NBC News released a new national poll — with an ominous 666 likely voters — and found 46 percent of likely voters prefer a Republican-controlled Congress, versus 44 percent who want Democrats in charge. But again note the 10 percent undecided or choosing another party’s candidate. It is extremely unlikely that the third-party or independent candidates will get 10 percent of the vote nationally on Election Day. (Individual races are a different story, obviously.)

But two figures in this poll jump out. First, “Republicans have more interest in the upcoming elections (59 percent say they’re very interested) than Democrats do (47 percent).” This is in the 13th paragraph, but it seems like a useful indicator that there’s a big difference in the motivation level of the parties’ bases.

Why do Democrats have less interest in the midterms than Republicans? How about because Obama’s not on the ballot? And how many Democrats are really “reliable Obama voters,” not “reliable Democratic voters”?

The second most interesting factor is spotlighted in a separate piece by NBC News:

Many voters are tuning out the elections that take place less than three weeks from now. According to the poll, high interest in the midterms has dropped from June (when it was 51%) to now (50%) — when interest in previous election cycles has always increased in the months leading up to Election Day. Let it sink in: INTEREST IN THE ELECTION ACTUALLY DROPPED as the midterms drew closer. It’s truly a stunning trend. This lack of interest is especially true among political independents (only 35% of them have high interest), and these are the people who typically have to be energized for a party to make wave-like gains in an election.

If the Republican base is more motivated than the Democrat base, and independents are particularly unmotivated, what happens?

They also conclude:

When reporting on Kansas and South Dakota, realize that this isn’t some quirk in just one or two states. This is simply what happens when you give a cranky electorate a viable independent vehicle.

Evidence that there is a growing appeal for someone OUTSIDE the two parties has been in our polls for the last few years. And 2014 could be the culmination of that growing antipathy toward both parties.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. One major objection to that analysis, is that in Kansas, the Democratic Senate candidate dropped out. Democrats who were left without a candidate are undoubtedly providing a big chunk of “independent” Greg Orman’s support — which is not the same as “growing appeal for someone OUTSIDE the two parties.” And for all the talk about South Dakota, note that Republican candidate Mike Rounds has yet to trail a poll, and that the “independent” option, Larry Pressler, was a Republican senator for three terms.

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