Like his third-party forefathers, Gary Johnson gets irate when you call him a spoiler. “We’re giving people a chance to vote for something, as opposed to the lesser of two evils,” the Libertarian presidential nominee shouted last week at a Bloomberg Politics reporter who asked about his invisible path to victory.
In truth, there are only two reasonable outcomes for Johnson's long-shot campaign, neither of which ends with him in the White House. In one scenario, he is no more than a nuisance for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, an afterthought to either major party's march to victory. In the other, Johnson’s campaign alters the contours of the presidential race, drawing votes that would have otherwise gone to Trump or Clinton.
His own view notwithstanding, the Johnson-as-spoiler scenario is highly plausible this year. In both traditional battlegrounds and in states that would be safe terrain in a normal election year, third-party protest votes have the chance of flipping results—and electoral votes.
For months, the assumption has been that one-time Republican presidential candidate Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld, both former Republican governors, might be an attractive option for members of Trump’s party resistant to their nominee, and that remains true. But this year’s spoiler threat is not just a one-party worry. Close to a month before Election Day, Clinton and her campaign are anxious that Johnson, along with Green Party nominee Jill Stein, may look just as desirable to disenchanted members of her Democratic coalition—particularly young voters—as they do to Republicans.
Johnson will be on the ballot in all 50 states this November; Stein will be on it in all but six. The name of an independent candidate, anti-Trump conservative Evan McMullin, will be seen in a dozen states, though others allow people to write it in. All three candidates fell short of the polling criteria that would have put them on the stage at the first presidential debate—and thus in living rooms of 84 million people. But that doesn’t change the number of voters who are unenthused about their major-party choices this November. No matter who wins next month, Clinton and Trump have already made history as the most disliked nominees ever.
Both have comparably high unfavorable ratings, nearing 60 percent, and that explains why Johnson has been able to maintain solid poll numbers deep into the fall. And the Clinton campaign has reason to be concerned. Nationwide, polls show that Johnson supporters are a mixed bunch who tend to skew younger and more suburban, with an equal representation from conservatives and liberals—a jumbled demographic profile that suggests the group may contain just as many Clinton doubters as Trump deserters. For this reason, Clinton’s highest-profile surrogates have hit the campaign trail with a new line of persuasion: urging disaffected lefties not to waste their ballot. Last week, President Barack Obama used a radio interview with Steve Harvey to brand third-party votes as a boon for Trump. The same day it aired, first lady Michelle Obama warned voters at a Clinton rally in Philadelphia that they will “help swing an entire precinct for Hillary’s opponent with a protest vote or by staying home out of frustration.”
For Clinton, potential supporters most susceptible to the third-party lure are those most weakly bonded to the party—those members of the Obama coalition without much of a record voting in non-Obama elections. Among the Trump cohort, third-party voters are more likely to be gleaned from base Republicans who reject their party’s unconventional standard-bearer.
Johnson has received endorsements from several conservative newspaper editorial boards, including the Detroit News, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and the Chicago Tribune, which dubbed this election a “moment to rebuke the Republican and Democratic parties.” USA Today, which normally abstains from presidential endorsements, chose to “disendorse” Trump, but refused to throw support behind Clinton, tacitly opening a door for Johnson.
Not all third-party pressures are equal in the Electoral College. Some states have long histories of strong independent leanings—among them are Alaska, Utah, and Johnson's home of state of New Mexico. Johnson is polling strongly in all three. And while Alaska and Utah are liable to stay their usual color, New Mexico, traditionally blue, is surprisingly close at this point, the result of Johnson siphoning votes from Clinton.
But the bigger questions are in swing states, and states on the cusp of becoming competitive battlegrounds. Third-party candidates essentially take votes out of circulation, lowering the win number. The spoiler problem arises when those votes come disproportionately from one side. Quantifying the Democrats’ nightmare scenario, in which support for Johnson and Stein grows to a significant enough level by, say, drawing a quarter of Clinton’s get-out-the-vote targets and an eighth of her base, Clinton could lose strongholds such as Washington and Pennsylvania. Places like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Nevada would become safely Republican.
If, conversely, the third parties garner enough votes mostly by flipping a quarter of Republicans' base and an eighth of their get-out-the-vote targets, it would flip the most competitive battlegrounds back to blue, while putting Montana, Arkansas, Indiana, and even Oklahoma within Clinton’s reach.
In 1992, Ross Perot scooped up nearly a third of the votes in Maine and Utah, pushing major-party candidates into third place, while getting closer to 19 percent of the nationwide popular vote. This year, there is no indication that even Johnson and Stein combined could reach that level of support, anywhere. Independent candidates typically see support drop as Election Day nears because many voters appear to come around and settle for one of the major party candidates. Still, the unpopularity of both Clinton and Trump has helped Johnson poll as high as 13 percent in states such as Colorado.
Johnson's strength means that a significant part of these last several weeks will be spent playing a three-sided persuasion game in which the goal is to scare wary voters into voting for the lesser of two evils rather than casting a protest vote. On a macro level, that's exactly why the Obamas and Bernie Sanders have all been out warning voters that a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Trump. But communicating with these disaffected voters on a more granular level is difficult, because there is little targeting information available to help strategists pick out potential protest votes buried among their base and mobilization targets. Even if campaigns could precisely identify these voters, it’s hard to know if they will turn to a third party or just stay home.
Below is an analysis of three states where third parties could make a big difference.
Democrats insist that they’re not worried about losing Colorado this November. Loyal Democrats make up three-fourths of the votes needed to win the state, and a recent influx of Hispanics and millennials has broadened Clinton’s get-out-the-vote options.
Trump’s low standing with Latino communities may alienate him from more than one-fifth of Colorado’s population. Additionally, his campaign message, which feeds on pessimism about the trajectory of American society, may be less potent to those living the Rocky Mountain lifestyle—Colorado's cities are often listed among the nation’s happiest places to live. Trump's appeals to economic insecurity are also probably better directed elsewhere, as unemployment in the state is under 4 percent, the lowest of any 2016 battleground state besides New Hampshire. Religious unease with Trump presents him yet another source of worry in Colorado: one-fifth of the Republican base lives in the Colorado Springs area, home to Focus on the Family and a hotbed for politically active Christians.
But that doesn’t make the third-party threat any less real. Libertarianism has always been most prevalent out West, and the growing number of young voters on Colorado's voter rolls—nearly a third of the state’s voters are under 35—represent a large chunk of the electorate with little historical loyalty to either party.
For any campaign, the key to a Colorado victory is its universe of persuadable voters, which is more than four times larger than in Nevada, the nearest battleground. Among these persuadable group, campaigns will find middle-aged and educated residents of the Denver area; they'll also find voters who are pro-marijuana and pro-choice. It’s with these groups that Johnson, who may benefit from name recognition from his time as governor of neighboring New Mexico, is polling best. A recent CNN/ORC survey of Colorado shows the Libertarian with 13 percent support statewide, most of it coming from self-identified independents.
As Johnson works to expand that support, his likeliest targets will be the nearly half of unreliable Democrats who are under the age of 35. Six out of 10 of the party’s get-out-the-vote targets are likely to have college degrees, and statistical models project 97 percent support among them for legal marijuana, which was enacted four years ago.
Clinton’s campaign will start worrying if third-party candidates start to attract more disenfranchised Democrats than irritated Republicans. If, say, third-party candidates were drawing a combined 16 percent of the total vote by siphoning off a quarter of Clinton's mobilization targets and one-eighth of her base, Colorado would flip, giving Trump an approximate four-point edge.
This year will be the first presidential election in which Colorado conducts its voting entirely by mail. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate is expected to cast ballots before Election Day, one of the highest rates in the nation, with six out of 10 persuadable voters likely to commit to a candidate before November. If Clinton is worried about dissension within her coalition, she may want to delay her GOTV tactics—the so-called "chase" programs that nudge voters to return their mail ballots—until she's had more time to sway them.
During a decade in which President Obama has significantly expanded the Democratic map into the South and West, Missouri is the largest one-time battleground state to have moved safely into the Republican column. Bill Clinton won there twice, but population decline in urban areas has kept Missouri out of Democratic reach since. Obama came within 3,600 votes of winning in 2008, but did not even compete for Missouri four years later, losing the state by 9 percentage points to Mitt Romney.
In a two-way race, Hillary Clinton would likely face a similar fate. Her Democratic base is roughly 60 percent the size of the one Missouri's Republicans count on. She could presumably turn out her entire mobilization list, while swinging every single persuadable voter her way, and still fall short.
This year’s third-party variable may be the only thing that could change that arithmetic. With Clinton not actively competing in Missouri, Trump may have to worry less about losing the center to her than about Johnson's incursions on his right flank. Trump barely eked out a victory in Missouri’s March 15 primary, losing the state’s most educated and wealthy Republicans to Ted Cruz. The 380,000 Cruz voters—amounting to one-sixth of the general electorate—may represent Johnson's best chance to eat into the Republican coalition. Missouri evangelicals, whom Trump lost in the primary by 16 percentage points, make a promising (if unlikely) audience for the Libertarian, despite his party's traditional disdain for the politics of morality. Johnson might be able to package some of his small-government positions like a ban on federal spending for abortions to exploit existing doubts about Trump's commitment to religious priorities.
Recent polls have Trump up by a comfortable nine points, and Johnson in single digits. But if Johnson were able to pull at least a quarter from Trump’s GOP base and an eighth from his GOTV targets—pushing him to 14 percent of the vote overall—Missouri would become one of the nation’s tightest races.
Under normal circumstances, New Mexico would be a pipe dream for Trump. Democrats begin with a 145,000-voter head start over the Republican’ coalition in the state, and New Mexico's small number of persuadable voters leaves the Trump campaign with few options to outmaneuver Clinton’s ground-game forces. Third-party support could reach as high as almost a fifth of likely voters and Trump would still find the state difficult to win.
But an early October poll by the Albuquerque Journal found that Clinton’s 10-point lead in a head-to-head with Trump in New Mexico shrinks to a slight 4-point edge when third-party candidates are considered. The reason: Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of the state, is hauling in a massive 24 percent of likely voters. That support is primarily made up of independent voters and appears to be evenly split among men and women, while also pulling equally from both Republican and Democratic coalitions.
Clinton could possibly head off a Johnson challenge by locking up support among the Hispanic voters that make up 45 percent of her get-out-the-vote targets. Trump, on the other hand, should probably worry most about losing votes to Johnson from within the majority of his base that is likely to have college degrees.
For New Mexico to slip from Clinton’s grasp, Johnson would have to win close to a quarter of voters and pull a majority of them from the Democratic ranks. To do that, he'd need to tap more than a quarter of Clinton’s less-reliable mobilization targets, as well as the equivalent of at least an eighth of her base voters, without dipping too much into Trump’s coalition.
This is the fourth in a series of eight Battlegrounds 2016 stories on the unique arithmetic that governs presidential elections in battleground states. Read more about how the battleground game is played.
—With assistance from Andre Tartar.