Recent polling in the 2016 presidential race reveals a seemingly counterintuitive result: Donald Trump widens his lead when pollsters include Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson compared with a head-to-head matchup with Hillary Clinton.
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The result contradicts the conventional wisdom that a three-way race hurts Republican Trump more because of the supposedly large number of disaffected Republicans yearning for a third option — and because of a strong libertarian faction within the GOP. What’s more, Johnson and running mate William Weld are both former Republican governors.
“When you get 20 or 25 percent of the American public that has unfavorable views of both of these candidates — what I call the nose-holders — they are reacting entirely differently that they have in past elections.”
Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and a handful of minor Republican officeholders have endorsed the ticket. After an attempt to recruit a conservative candidate to mount an independent challenge fizzled, many predicted NeverTrumpers would run to Johnson. At least for now, though, the polls suggest that Johnson’s presence in the race takes slightly more from Democrat Clinton.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said he sees Johnson more as a vehicle for disappointed voters of all stripes than as an ideological draw. He said many voters do not know enough to make that kind of choice. He noted at a recent poll indicated that 40 percent of voters cannot identify the political party of their own congressman.
“They’re not making that decision based on partisanship,” he said. “When you get 20 or 25 percent of the American public that has unfavorable views of both of these candidates — what I call the nose-holders — they are reacting entirely differently that they have in past elections. We’ve never seen numbers like these.”
Newhouse said the polls could indicate that, at the present time, voters are more dissatisfied with Clinton than Trump.
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A CNN/ORC poll released Monday gives Trump a lead of 3 percentage points in a two-way race and a 5-point lead in a three-way race. An Economist/YouGov survey finds a similar swing — Clinton leads by 5 points head-to-head against Trump — but by only 2 points when Johnson is included. An NBC poll suggests Clinton is up a point against Trump, but Trump leads by 2 points in a three-way race.
[lz_table title=”2016: Two-way vs. Three-way” source=”RealClearPolitics”]Poll,2-way race,3-way race
CNN/ORC,Trump +3,Trump +5
CBS,Trump +1,Trump +1
Economist,Clinton +5,Clinton +2
NBC/SM,Clinton +1,Trump +2
The few polls that include Green Party candidate Jill Stein — a seemingly more natural home for Clinton defectors — registers too little support for her to make a difference.
Libertarians, who are basking in unprecedented attention in an election season of historically unpopular major-party candidates, downplayed the significance of which major-party candidate has the most to gain from a three-way race.
“It’s practically even, and the difference is so slight that it’s not statistically significant,” said Carla Howell, the party’s political director. “And it goes up and down.”
Howell said Libertarians have much to offer members of both major parties — fiscal restraint and low taxes for Republicans and social liberalism and military cuts for Democrats. Johnson supporters are turned off by both candidates, she said, adding that they have no confidence that Trump would rein in spending or stop overseas military invention.
And Clinton rates no better, Howell said.
“They see Hillary Clinton as a war hawk and a crony capitalist,” she said.
Howell said the challenge is to get Johnson better known among the public. She said he would be polling as high or higher than Trump and Clinton if he got the same amount of media coverage.
“Still a majority of people just don’t know who he is,” she said. “There are some that are protest voters and some say, ‘This is what I always wanted, anyway.'”
But Newhouse said support for third-party candidates generally declines as Election Day nears and voters decide they do not want to waste their ballots. Even with the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump, he said, he expects that dynamic to hold in November.
“It will still erode as we get closer to Election Day,” he said. “When push comes to shove, the vast majority of voters are still going to vote for the Republican or Democratic candidate.”