Election 2020

The Incredible Shrinking Third Party Voter

If Biden retains his 2–1 advantage among 2016 Libertarian and Green voters, Trump is probably toast.


Turns out President Donald Trump has good reason to be playing rhetorical footsie with former supporters of former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson—the road to his re-election may well be blocked by those 7.8 million Americans who voted third-party or independent in 2016.

"The combined national NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls from this year," reported NBC News last week, "have interviewed 215 voters who said they backed either [Gary] Johnson or [Jill] Stein in 2016….Forty-seven percent say they're voting for [Joe] Biden, 20 percent are supporting Trump, and 33 percent are unsure or say they're backing another candidate."

That sample size is very small, but the implications are potentially huge, and in line with several other indicators about third-party voters over the past two years. If you crudely assigned 47 percent of the 5,946,559 Johnson/Stein voters to Biden, 20 percent to Trump, and otherwise kept the same totals for the major-party candidates from 2016, suddenly the Democrat is winning 50.2 percent of the popular vote, and the Republican is 4.47 million votes behind. And oh yeah, at least two-thirds of the third party vote goes POOF!

That's not how life works in the real world, of course, but there's plenty of other supporting evidence for the theory that the indie vote will collapse, in ways not friendly to the incumbent. To wit:

* The 2018 midterm congressional elections, which featured the highest voter turnout in a century, surpassed almost all expectations for Democrats while being strikingly brutal for third-party and independent candidates.

* Exit polls of Johnson and Stein voters in 2016, while showing a much higher propensity for just sitting out any contest without smaller-party alternatives, nonetheless tilted more positively toward Hillary Clinton. "[We] asked voters [who] they would have cast ballots for if there were only two candidates (Clinton and Trump)," CBS News wrote at the time. "A quarter of Johnson voters said Clinton, 15 percent said Trump, and 55 percent said they would not have voted. Numbers were similar for Stein voters, with about a quarter saying they would have chosen Clinton, 14 percent saying Trump, and 61 percent saying they would not have voted."

* One of the main reasons why the 2020 race has been so unusually stable, especially compared to 2016, with very few polling zig-zags and with a steady Biden lead, is that the number of undecided voters has been much lower. The electorate is engaged (by the derision of the other candidate/party as much as anything) and knows who it's voting for.

* Four years ago this week, even in the immediate wake of the "Aleppo moment," Gary Johnson was polling nationally at 9 percent. The 2020 Libertarian nominee, Jo Jorgensen, has polled between 1 percent and 3 percent in each national survey (and all but a couple of state polls) for the past month.

* Meanwhile, Jorgensen has led or been tied with all other non-major candidates—the Green Party's Howie Hawkins, the Constitution Party's Don Blankenship, rap superstar Kanye West—in every poll taken since August. Support for third-party candidates in 2020 has yet to exceed a combined 5 percent; in 2016 the combined vote for candidates not named Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton was 5.73 percent.

* And don't forget that polling almost always exaggerates third-party support by at least one-third; Johnson's final-day polling last time was 4.8 percent, and he ended up with just under 3.3 percent.

* Unlike the Libertarians, who again managed to get on all 50 state ballots plus the District of Columbia, the Green Party is lagging in ballot access in 2020, with just 30 states plus D.C. so far, compared to 44 in 2016.

* According to the Washington Post's David Weigel, "At the start of August, Jorgensen had raised less than $1.4 million, on track for far less than the $12 million the Johnson/Weld ticket raised in 2016. A spokesman for Hawkins said he had raised 'over $300,000' for his Green Party bid, less than 10 percent of what Stein raised by the end of her 2016 campaign."

* Third-party presidential totals are cyclical—spike years (1992, 1968, 1948) tend to be followed by a comparative collapse, particularly if the two-party contest was close. Last election was the biggest third-party year since 1996, and the most controversial election since 2000 (which also saw a steep dropoff in third-party enthusiasm four years later). The fundamentals are just bad this year, which is one of many reason that—as predicted—no big-name outsiders swooped in for the Libertarian and Green nominations, nor mounted anything like an organized independent run.

The expected third-party contraction, and projected benefit to Biden, does not mean that Jo Jorgensen or maybe even a lower-polling candidate won't beat the margin of victory in a battleground state, including one that may go for Trump. Just today, the Libertarian pulled 4 percent in a Marquette University Law School poll of Wisconsin, site of the narrowest Trump victory in 2016.

But if the president truly believes that the 2020 defectors from the Johnson/Bill Weld ticket (including Weld himself) are "all Republican voters," let alone that "they have to vote for us," he is in for a rude surprise come November.