The past week has been very good for a certain Gary Johnson. Chosen as the Libertarian Party nominee, Johnson has picked up a whopping 10 percent in recent polls, which might make him reach the threshold for presidential debates with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.
Nevertheless, the very factors which make people think a third party candidate would do well this November also work to strengthen the Republican-Democrat duality. Pitting the two least liked presidential candidates in modern polling against one another seems a perfect chance to escape the elephant and donkey seesaw, but it might only mean that everyone “votes against” the person he or she hates most, leading them to vote for Clinton and Trump merely to stop the other.
Polls look very good for Johnson right now, but polls this far out don’t usually predict the outmode of an election in November. Morning Consult found Johnson at 10 percent, to Trump’s 35 percent and Clinton’s 38 percent. A Fox News poll also found Johnson at 10 percent, with Trump at 42 percent and Clinton at 39 percent. The RealClearPolitics average gives the Libertarian 7.5 percent, to Trump’s 38 percent and Clinton’s 40.2 percent. But there are reasons to suspect Johnson’s support will drop sharply in November.
Next Page: Why the fact that people hate Trump and Clinton makes it more likely Americans will vote for … Clinton and Trump.
3. People hate Trump and Clinton.
Only 37.6 percent of voters view Hillary Clinton favorably, while 55.8 percent have an unfavorable view, according to the RealClearPolitics average. This negative 18.2 percent favorability seems horrible, until you look at Donald Trump’s numbers. Only 35.4 percent view The Donald favorably, and a full 58 percent have a negative impression, giving him a score of negative 22.6 percent.
Surely in such a negative political climate, a third party candidate can make a strong showing. Wouldn’t people want to vote for neither Trump nor Clinton?
Actually, most Americans do not vote for a candidate or party, but against the opposing party or candidate. This is why more and more Americans are voting along party lines, even while they refuse to identify with one party or the other. When 87 percent of party supporters who dislike the opposing party consistently vote for their own candidates, that means that 87 percent of people who hate Trump or Clinton are likely to fall in line behind Clinton or Trump.
Next Page: Why Libertarians are — sorry to say it — merely an exotic type of Republican.
2. The Libertarian vote is highest outside of battleground states.
Americans aren’t stupid, as Daniel McCarthy explains at The American Conservative. We know our votes don’t really matter, unless we live in one of a few battleground states. People in Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and a few other states will not allow themselves to vote for a third party, even though they don’t really like either option. By contrast, people in Indiana, Alaska, Wyoming, and Illinois know their state will go red or blue, so they can afford to vote on principle.
Gary Johnson did best in those sort of states in 2012: in places like Alaska and Wyoming, which were always going to vote for Mitt Romney, voters could support a different kind of Republican, the “Libertarian.” By contrast, Johnson did worse in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Illinois was more Libertarian than Virginia, because Libertarian-leaning Republicans knew they would lose their state anyway.
This also gets to the essential nub of the Libertarian problem — the party always picks former Republicans, not former Democrats. Libertarian nominees are merely striking down their capital Rs: Ron Paul, Bob Barr, Gary Johnson, and William Weld were all Republicans. The eager Trump supporter Wayne Allyn Root was the 2008 Libertarian vice presidential nominee.
What about Bill Kristol’s promise that “there will be an independent candidate” to challenge Trump? Well, Virginia may be the only state where such a candidate would pose a threat to The Donald, as the anti-Trump Republicans are likely concentrated in the D.C. suburbs. Nevertheless, with Clinton being more “neoconservative” than Trump (on foreign intervention, trade deals, and immigration), it’s possible a #NeverTrump candidate could take votes from Hillary, not from The Donald.
Next Page: The anti-establishment forces already have a candidate.
1. The anti-establishment forces already have a candidate.
Many true conservatives and #NeverTrump voters are nevertheless angry at the status quo in Washington. Donald Trump is smart — he is making this election a stark choice between more of the same past 16+ years of failed political leadership and a new direction. Many who stringently opposed him in the primaries will not continue to do so, once he is fully the nominee.
Perhaps unfortunately, any candidate with positions on trade, foreign policy, or immigration which are more like Hillary’s than Trump’s will be associated with the “more of the same” platform. To a large extent, this would be unfair, especially for a David French or a Gary Johnson. The difficulty is that Trump is defining the narrative of this campaign, and any third party candidate will be associated either with the status quo or with the forces of Trumpian “change.”
Like a certain Illinois senator in 2008, Trump stands for a rejection of the failures of the past president. Neither Johnson nor a Kristol candidate will have the media advantages of The Donald. A few months ago, The New York Times reported that Trump received the equivalent of $1 trillion in free media coverage, and that tendency shows no signs of stopping. TV outlets air live footage of his rallies, they cover his crazy statements, they allow Trump to dominate coverage of the election.
This makes sense, since it drives more attention, but it is an unprecedented way to cover a campaign, and if it continues, The Donald will determine the meaning of this election. It will be less about race, class, and gender and more about dissatisfaction with the status quo and a rejection of the “establishment.”
This gives Trump an ace in the hole, but Clinton still has many advantages (despite being a horrible candidate). The Donald will need increased white turnout or an improvement in the Republican share of Blacks and Hispanics in order to win. These developments are possible, especially if Trump can convince working class people of all races to back his candidacy. If the coverage continues to focus on him, his chances are decent.
None of this means a Kristol candidate shouldn’t run, or that Gary Johnson’s candidacy is hopeless. This is 2016, and Trump has shown us that anything can happen, but most Americans are still likely to see their vote in November as going against Clinton or Trump, and the Republican-Democrat binary is unlikely to be weakened by two deeply unpopular frontrunners. That’s just how American politics works, even with the smasher of conventional wisdom, Mr. Donald J. Trump.
This is not an endorsement for Trump, or an encouragement for conservatives to vote for Clinton just to stop him. I will likely still vote third party myself, but I suffer under no illusions that most Americans are with me.