Gary Johnson Beating the Clinton-Trump Spread Across One-Third of the Country

The Libertarian's polling support exceeds the Democrat-Republican margin throughout the interior west, Midwest, and in key swing states


No, but…. ||| Reason

In 2012, Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson did not receive more votes than the margin between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in any single state. In fact, he didn't come particularly close—0.53 percent of the vote in Florida, where Obama won by 0.88 percentage points, was the only instance in which Johnson's total was even half the major-party point spread.

Mostly, that was because the election just wasn't close in most of the country. While Johnson's 0.99 percent national total might seem to be in the ballpark of the 3.87-point difference between Obama's winning 51.17 percent and Romney's losing 47.32, the fact is that a whopping 36 states (including the District of Columbia) were decided by double-digit margins. A measly four states—Florida, North Carolina (2.04 percentage points), Ohio (2.98) and Virgina (3.88)—were decided by less than five.

Oh, what a difference four years makes. Not only is Johnson mounting the biggest third-party presidential challenge in two decades, his impact on a state-by-state level is changing the Electoral College dynamic from 2012 in interesting ways. Across the country, and regardless of whether a state is red or blue, the polling margin between the Democratic and Republican nominee is almost universally smaller than the election results were four years ago. And according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations below, the Libertarian is exceeding those margins in 18 states.

I took FiveThirtyEight's up-to-date poll numbers for each state, and averaged them with RealClearPolitics' "RCP Average." (This is a somewhat crude maneuver; see the bottom of this post* for some methodological considerations; but still, it gives us a rough idea.) The following is a list of those 18 states ranked by the percentage-point distance between Gary Johnson's polling average and the current margin between the leading two candidates. The numbers displayed are, in order: Johnson's current polling in that state, the size (and owner) of the lead, the distance between those first two numbers (in bold), then Johnson's 2012 total and the size/recipient of the point spread in that election:

NM 17.0% HC 9.0 + 8.0 2012 GJ 3.55% BO 10.15

AZ 7.9% DT 1.5 + 6.4 2012 GJ 1.40% MR 9.06

NV 7.1% HC 1.7 + 5.4 2012 GJ 1.08% BO 6.68

IA 8.2% DT 2.8 + 5.4 2012 GJ 0.82% MR 5.81

OH 6.1% DT 1.0 + 5.1 2012 GJ 0.89% BO 2.98

NC 6.6% HC 1.6 + 5.0 2012 GJ 0.99% MR 2.04

NH 9.7% HC 4.9 + 4.8 2012 GJ 1.16% BO 5.58

AK 13.7% DT 9.4 + 4.3 2012 GJ 2.46% MR 13.99

CO 8.9% HC 4.9 + 4.0 2012 GJ 1.38% BO 5.36

ME 9.8% HC 5.9 + 3.9 2012 GJ 1.31% BO 15.29

FL 5.2% HC 1.9 + 3.3 2012 GJ 0.53% BO 0.88

WI 8.6% HC 5.3 + 3.3 2012 GJ 0.67% BO 6.94

GA 6.8% DT 5.1 + 1.7 2012 GJ 1.16% MR 7.82

VA 8.1% HC 6.6 + 1.5 2012 GJ 0.81% BO 3.88

MI 7.7% HC 6.6 + 1.1 2012 GJ 0.16% BO 9.50

IN 9.7% DT 8.7 + 1.0 2012 GJ 1.91% MR 10.20

MN 5.8% HC 5.0 + 0.8 2012 GJ 1.20% BO 7.69

PA 5.6% HC 5.4 + 0.2 2012 GJ 0.87% BO 5.38

A few items of interest here: 1) Note that the Obama 2012 state of Ohio is leaning Trump in 2016, and that Romney's North Carolina is currently led by Hillary Clinton. 2) The biggest tightening of margins on this list are in Maine (9.4 percentage points), Arizona (7.6), and Nevada (5.0). Looking at the states in which Johnson is not beating the spread, the biggest margin-changer, by far, is Utah, at 32.2 percentage points (I have Johnson polling at 11.8 percent there). 3) Nationally, Johnson has consistently been pulling equally from Clinton, Trump, and Other/Not-voting. While Jacob T. Levy has argued persuasively that Johnson on balance slightly helps Clinton (at least thus far), his impact is less studied on a state-by-state level. (I hope to do that here soon!)

Though I won't post the full numbers on the rest of the country, here are the 14 states in which there are more than 10 percentage points separating Johnson's polling average and the margin between the two leading candidates:

NY 6.5% HC 18.6 -12.1

WV 8.1% DT 20.8 -12.7

VT 10.0% HC 23.0 -13.0

ID 9.0% DT 22.0 -13.0

MA 7.7% HC 21.5 -13.8

OK 6.9% DT 21.1 -14.2

CA 5.9% HC 20.9 -15.0

NE 7.3% DT 22.6 -15.3

AR 4.7% DT 21.5 -16.8

AL 5.0% DT 22.1 -17.1

WY 9.2% DT 32.1 -22.9

MD 5.2% HC 29.9 -25.7

HI 5.1% HC 33.3 -28.2

DC 5.3% HC 63.7 -58.4

So even with two historically reviled candidates, and the shrinking margins between them, huge swaths of the country live in states where the presidential election is a foregone conclusion. After the jump, some notes on methodology.

* Averaging FiveThirtyEight and the RCP Average presents an obvious objection: There are way more polls collected and digested by the former than the latter—taking Texas as an example, 538 collates 26, RCP just three. So why do it?

Mostly because FiveThirtyEight steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the presence of Green Party nominee Jill Stein, let alone other candidates (the latter would have the most impact on places like Colorado and Utah, where the ballots are crowded and Evan McMullin is pulling tangible support). RealClearPolitics at least measures Stein where she pops up, and since there is a real "Stein effect" on the other candidates, I'd like to see that reflected. In any event, with only two or three exceptions, the numbers are pretty similar in each. When I revisit this list, or drill down deeper into a given state, I'll separate things with more precision.


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  1. “This is a somewhat crude maneuver…”

    You know who else used a crude maneuver?

    1. Captain Picard?

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    2. Hannibal at the Battle of Caen ?

  2. The Clinton Trump spread sounds gross.

    1. You’re right… WHO in their right mind would stick ANYTHING in between those two?!?!?!

    2. Would you prefer to try some of my Johnson spread?

  3. These numbers are even more boring than an actual horse race. Tell us about the chaos that happens when neither GD or TS gets enough electoral votes to win.

    1. The GOP has (currently) a decent advantage in the state-by-state voting in the house.

      But, the question would be who those GOP reps would go for in a 3 way vote? Would they just vote in Trump or would they go anti-Trump and vote in Johnson, or go the neo-con route and vote for Clinton?

      1. They could refuse to give anyone a majority – then if the Senate is Republican, it will elect Pence, and Pence will become President.

  4. If, in the likely event Clinton wins, Johnson beating the spread is a very good thing for libertarianism in the Republican party (and I’m thinking of a particular Kentucky Senator, in particular). Defeats bring consequences. The party leadership and the GOP donor class is going to have to finally come to terms with where they want to go as a party. They can go with Trumpism, which will have lost. Or they can get behind a libertarian. And the Libertarian candidate “costing” them the election is going to make that choice a lot clearer.

    1. You forgot the most likely option, I’ll call it the McCain Route – “This is what happens when you don’t nominate a REAL conservative”. Then they go back to the drawing board to figure out how to lose in 2020 by nominating Huckabee or Santorum.

      1. Maybe by that time we’ll have Snake Plissken and it won’t matter who they put up.

    2. Beating the spread is what adds clout to spoiler votes. More important, it is what changes the law of the land without regard for what The Kleptocracy had on “both” its parties’ platforms. This was clearly demonstrated in 1892, when the looters got their Communist manifesto income tax into the tariff act. Same thing in 2000. When the Econazis gored the Dems’ ox their reaction was to go environmentally berserk and forge climate data. There is nothing the Greens could ask for that the Dems haven’t done, except maybe death camps for pseudoscience deniers.

  5. GayJay’s vote percentage will be less than 20% of his October polling average.

    1. You are wrong.

      1. SIV has plenty of old election results to draw conclusions from.

    2. Keep making those clueless predictions. I will delight in your misery later.

  6. Maybe by that time we’ll have Snake Plissken and it won’t matter who they put up. [removed][removed]

  7. Based on the op-eds from sources like HuffPo, Slate, and The Atlantic, I would’ve expected him to be cutting into Clinton’s numbers more than Trump’s. I mean, those media outlets who typically back the Democrats have been laying into him over the past few weeks even more so than they have Trump.

  8. thanks, Matt. state-by-state is what matters. looking forward to your next level of drill downs

    1. Yes, thanks. Polls are rickety predictors of unverifiable secret ballot elections, but the betting odds are resisting any additional big swings beyond the order of magnitude already recorded before the stall at 33 to 1. But with choice beating the antichoice by 3 to 1, it’s looking good.

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  11. There is only one story in regard to the election, and specifically Trump, tonight, Matt, and this isn’t it.

    1. Which is? Not all of us share your obsessions.

  12. If that translates into votes we’ll have The Kleptocracy by the short hairs. This could mean the complete repeal of prohibition–as after the depression election in 1932. As for Gary debating, I much prefer him as designated survivor.

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  14. There aren’t that many battleground states in which Johnson can play meaningful spoiler. At the top of my head it’s CO, AZ, FL and OH.

    If Trump manages to win FL and or OH (even if he loses the election), then Gary Johnson would have left his mark. There would be no ignoring the disillusioned white voters who are ready to give rise to outsiders.

    I really hate Gary Johnson for making silly mistakes that were mostly avoidable. He had to know the media had the “unqualified stoner who acts weird” narrative all ready to go at the first sign of ANYTHING unorthodox from him. He had less exposure to the media than the other two, he had to make every second count.

    There is a bit of Donald Trump in Gary Johnson. He seems slightly off and unprepared for the big stage.

  15. Pointless numerology about a pointless candidate. How is it that Perot, a man with no formal party affiliation, polled higher than any LP candidate ever has? The LP needs a winning platform, but doesn’t have one.

  16. Matt, if you need a straw or two to clutch I’ve got a friend who raises hay for his horses and might be able to spare some for you.

    Actually, if Johnson beats the spread nationally, it will change American politics forever. The problem is that the change is more likely to unite the Republicans and Democrats to, for all practical purposes, outlaw third parties. California now has two Democrats running for the Senate with no Republican even in the race because they adopted “jungle” primaries. Limiting elections to the two top vote getters in a single primary will eliminate the LP and every other “heretic” party.

    We could be on the path to a one party system and without a Supreme Court to say running for office is an unenumerated right or a violation of the equal protection clause, there is nothing to stop this.

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  19. If Libertarians would tell people exactly what they would do if they won the presidency. Do Libertarians really want to have open borders? Do they want to scrap Social Security? Are they really for non intervention? These questions need to be openly discussed in forums that people actually read or watch.

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