How a Third-Party Candidate Can Win

Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin has attracted a great deal of attention recently, and for good reason. If he wins his home state of Utah, he very well could become president. And he's not alone either — Libertarian Gary Johnson has a chance, too.

This could only happen if the election is close — so close that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton wins 270 electoral votes in November. Then, according to the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, the election goes to the House of Representatives, where Johnson or McMullin could have a real shot.

Granted, such a situation is not likely, but it is possible for a third-party candidate to become president in January. Here's how.

1. McMullin or Johnson wins a state.

The presidential race is tied in Utah, and not just between Clinton and Trump. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll over this past weekend, Trump takes 30 percent, Clinton takes 28 percent, and McMullin takes 29 percent. Since the margin of error for the poll is 4 points, this is an effective tie between Trump, Clinton, and McMullin.

Utah's heavy Mormon population harbors deep doubts about Trump. After Mitt Romney endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the primary, Cruz took 69 percent of the vote, leaving Trump in third with a paltry 14 percent. Utah is a deep-red state, but Trump's unpopularity could push the Beehive State into McMullin's camp.

FiveThirtyEight's "now-cast" gives McMullin a 14.2 percent chance of winning Utah, quite a bit ahead of Clinton's 6.2 percent chance, but well below Trump's 79.2 percent chance. There is good reason to think McMullin's odds will improve, however. Google search traffic for the third-party candidate is up, and as Utah Mormons realize that he has a chance, they may be more likely to flock to him. It may be unlikely that he takes the state from Trump, but it is becoming more and more possible.

Gary Johnson faces a much stiffer climb, however. In his home state of New Mexico, he has only a 0.4 percent chance of winning. The blue state has a 92.5 percent chance of going for Clinton. This is Johnson's most competitive state, where he polls at 17.6 percent.

In each of the other states where Johnson polls above 8 percent, either Clinton or Trump already has the state locked up. In Montana (10.2 percent for Johnson), Trump holds a solid lead at 49 percent. Clinton has Washington state in the bag with 52.6 percent, so Johnson's 8.2 percent likely won't propel him to victory. Each state follows this situation. Utah is contested, but Trump, Clinton, and McMullin are in the 20s, while Johnson lags at 9.4 percent.

If McMullin wins Utah, he could become president. Unfortunately, polling does not suggest any state that Johnson could win. He would need to win a state in order to have any shot at the presidency. McMullin's strategy of focusing on one state is more likely to give him a shot.

Next Page: But winning one state is not enough.