With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton unable to get more Americans to like than dislike them, it would seem that the time would be ripe for candidates outside the two-party system to gain some real traction and votes.
Don’t bet on it. Not only are the independent candidates unlikely to affect this election, neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein are likely to get even close to their current polling numbers.
Historically, third-party candidates start with a bang and end with a barely audible whimper. The ones that have any success are usually public officials at the time of their candidacy or were able to participate in the national televised debates.
The last time an independent candidate definitively affected the outcome of a Presidential election was 1912, when Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican Party resulting in the tragedy that was the Wilson Administration. Since then there have been only three elections where a third-party candidate exceeded 10%. Of 91 independent candidates since 1948, only nine have exceeded 1%.
In 1948 President Truman faced insurgents from the left and the right. Former Vice-President Henry Wallace ran as a far left progressive garnering 2.37%, while segregationist South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond received 2.4% and won four states in the Deep South. Truman, however, was still able to defeat Republican Tom Dewey by 2.2 million votes.
Segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace did much better in 1968, winning 13.5% and five states in the Deep South. Did Wallace take southern states from Humphrey or from Nixon? Either way, Nixon got his 270 electoral votes. Wallace was working toward another run as a Democrat in 1972 when he was shot at a Maryland shopping center. His American Independent Party replacement, the barely known California Congressman John Schmitz, barely mustered 1 million votes (1.42%).
The two strongest candidates since the televised debate became a regular event were John Anderson (1980) and Ross Perot (1992 and 1996). Congressman Anderson ran in the GOP primaries to modest result, but switched to an independent general election run. Anderson polled well enough to debate Ronald Reagan in the first debate – President Carter declined to appear. In the follow-up debate, Carter was only willing to debate Reagan. Anderson ended up with 6.6%.
Perot made the debates in 1992 and hit a post-war record of 18.9%. In 1996, excluded from the debates, his total fell by more than half to 8.4%. Similar to Wallace, Perot’s Reform Party collapsed without him. In 2000 Pat Buchanan and his allies gained control of the party for his independent run. Buchanan polled only 0.23%, less than 500,000 votes.
Of all the candidates who missed out on the TV debates, Ralph Nader did the best, polling 2.74% (2.88 million votes). Whether the votes Nader pulled from Gore exceeded the votes Buchanan pulled from George W. Bush in Florida will never be known, but combined the two independents failed to reach 3% nationally.
Several independents had great polling numbers at some point, but not one of them got more than half of their best poll results on Election Day. In addition, every candidate, except Perot, did worse than their final Gallup poll. Perot was ahead of both Bush and Clinton in June 1992 at 39%. After a bizarre exit/hiatus from the campaign, Perot returned to the trail in the fall. His final Gallup number was 14% – four points below his actual result. In 1996, Perot hit a high of 19% in May and had 7% on election eve – one point below his final result.
George Wallace and John Anderson both had their moments. Wallace hit 21% in September 1968 and 15% on election eve, two points above his final. Anderson reached 24% in July 1980, falling to 8% on election eve – also two point above his final. Nader was able to reach 6% in June 2000 and stayed at a consistent 4-5% right up until the votes were cast, when he fell under 3%.
The historic pattern is clear, the voting public likes to make a show of supporting third party candidates and claiming independence from the two-party system. But, when the public has to pull the lever, it’s a different story. For the Republican and Democratic nominees, their final result is almost always higher than the final tracking poll as undecideds finally move to one or the other nominee. For the independents, voters desert them.
Granted, there are other factors at work – factors that do not bode well for Johnson and Stein. Since the advent of the TV debates, only Anderson and Perot have made the stage – and they are the only ones to get above 3% of the vote. In addition, every independent candidate who got more than 2% of the vote was a sitting officeholder, with the exception of Perot and Nader. Perot was the Donald Trump of the day, a well-known entrepreneur with a hot issue (the budget deficit). Nader was less famous, but still had strong name recognition.
Put these factors together and the road looks mighty daunting for Gary Johnson. The former governor of New Mexico has not been in office since 2002, polled terribly in the 2008 GOP Presidential primaries, and has not latched on to a critical issue. And the threshold for inclusion in the debates of 15% looks out of reach. Johnson will probably exceed his 0.99% result from 2012 – small beer indeed.
As bad as things look for Johnson, Jill Stein is just plain nowhere. Her 0.36% from 2012 is nothing to build on. She is not an officeholder and has no chance at the debate stage. Getting over to Nader’s 2.74% would be a miracle.
It is possible that Johnson and Stein are hoping to benefit if Clinton builds a big lead on Trump. Theoretically, dissatisfied voters could vote their conscience as the election would be a foregone conclusion. That assumption is not borne out by past results. Non-competitive elections in 1952, 1956, 1964, 1972 and 1984 provided very little traction for protest candidates. Only in 1972 did an independent candidate receive over 1%.
The one factor that may give Johnson and Stein a boost is the unpopularity of Trump and Clinton. Clinton has not polled a net favorable rating since July 12, 2015. And Trump has never polled a net favorable. It is possible that Trump and Clinton will make history by driving voters into protest voting. But that truly would be a major break from the past.
Including Johnson and Stein in national polling is a nice courtesy, but in the end their numbers are likely to evaporate. For a truly accurate reading of where the Presidential race stands, the straight-up ballot test of Trump vs. Clinton is what to watch.