Last week, eyes turned to third-party candidates as voters contemplated their choices in November. You could almost hear the internet collectively mutter, "Remind me again, what are my other options?"
Historically the conversation turns to third-party candidates at this time in the campaign cycle. So, we decided to compare polling numbers to voting results for third-parties historically. The results aren't pretty, but they are consistent. Since 1988, third party candidates have averaged less than one tenth of a percent of the popular vote. With that in mind, it is fair to say this year's leading third-party candidates are polling much better than average.
The two leading third-party candidates are Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson. As it turns out, the Green and Libertarian parties have a track record of getting on the ballot. In fact, both Stein and Johnson ran in the last election. Unfortunately for both candidates, they won less than 1% of the popular vote and no electoral votes. That said, both candidates are faring better in the polls this time around.
RealClearPolitics' most recent polling average puts Stein at 3.1% nationally, compared to 2% at this time in 2012. Johnson is performing even better. His polling average is 8.6%. At this time in 2012, he was polling at just 4% nationally. More importantly, at least six state-wide polls show Johnson polling at double digits, some as high as 16%. Even, with an average margin of error of about 3%, these numbers are enough to give pause to those who had written-off third-party candidates.
Here is how Johnson and Stein are faring in the polls as compared to historic polling numbers for third-party candidates at this time in the campaign:
Data source: Historic Gallup polling data, U.S. Presidential Elections (1936-2012); RealClearPolitics.com, 2016 third-party candidate polling data. Chart shows average polling results by candidate by month. Where there are multiple polls in a given month, the results are averaged. Note: Historically, and currently, polls tend not to publish polling results for third-party candidates when the results are insignificant. As a result polling data exists only for races where candidates have received at least 5% support.
For voters thinking about casting a protest vote, here are our takeaways: Although history has not always been on their side, successful third-party candidates have tended to bring a national spotlight to important wedge-issues. Support for third-party candidates generally peaks in the summer and fades in the homestretch. And, if you want your vote to count, it matters where you live. Historically third-parties that can boast strong numbers in a few states tend to win more electoral votes than those relying on broad-based popular support.
Since 1936 only five other third-party candidates have gotten more than 5% in the polls at any given point in the campaign according to historic Gallup polling data. Here's a brief rundown of how these candidates were polling in August and September compared to the final results along with a summary of each race:
Henry Wallace, Progressive Party, 1948
Polling (Aug/Sept): 5%
Actual result: 2%
Electoral votes: 0
Henry Wallace served as Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt during the war from 1941-1945. In 1948, Wallace left the Democratic Party to run unsuccessfully as the nominee of the Progressive Party against Democrat Harry Truman, Republican Thomas E. Dewey, and future Senator and long-time segregationist Strom Thurmond, who also ran as a third-party candidate.
Wallace ran on a platform of providing universal healthcare and ending segregation, often holding mixed race campaign events. He won 2.4% of the popular vote, no electoral votes, and finished fourth. Interestingly, although he polled better than Thurman, Thurman finished ahead of Wallace in the popular vote and carried four southern states, walking away with 39 electoral votes. Here's a fascinating look at historic polling data from the 1948 election.
George Wallace, American Independent, 1968
Polling (Aug.): 18%
Actual result: 14%
Electoral votes: 46
Alabama Governor George Wallace, best known for his efforts to block the desegregation of schools and his hardline segregationist stance during the civil rights movement, ran a successful third-party campaign against Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Republican Richard Nixon under the American Independent Party flag in 1968.
The election was marked by turbulance. The country was divided by the battle over civil rights and the war in Vietnam; Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated leading to riots, as was Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
Wallace's anti-war, anti-desegregation platform was popular with white, working-class men and drew votes away from Humphrey. He hoped his candidacy would force a brokered election giving southern states the power to determine the outcome.
Wallace won almost ten million popular votes and 46 electoral votes. Like Henry Wallace before him, he carried four Southern states. No third-party candidate has won an entire state's electoral votes since. However, he failed to force a brokered outcome. Nixon won the election with 301 electoral votes, 31 more votes than needed.
John B. Anderson, (independent), 1980
Polling Aug/Sept: 14%
Actual result: 7%
Electoral votes: 0
John B. Anderson was a 10-term congressman and moderate Republican who supported energy independence, campaign finance reform and the Equal Rights Amendment, which was intended to guarantee equal rights for women. He ran as an independent against Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Anderson (eventually) qualified for the ballot in all fifty states plus D.C. and at one point polled as high as 24% in Gallup polls. Thanks to his high polling numbers, the League of Women Voters which at that time sponsored presidential debates, set a qualification threshold of 15% for candidates to participate allowing Anderson to share the stage with the major party candidates. However, this sparked a controversy. Carter dropped out of the debates. Only Reagan and Anderson participated.
Throughout the fall Anderson's popularity waned as support for Reagan grew among moderate conservatives. Anderson won 6.6% percent of the popular vote, but no electoral votes. His campaign, however, did break new ground in providing fair access to ballots and the debates for third-party candidates. He carried on his ballot fight even after the election was over, winning a supreme court victory. He also founded Fairvote.org which advocates for election reforms such as ranked choice voting. Their tribute to him is worth watching.
Ross Perot, (independent), 1992
Polling (Sept.): 8%
Actual result: 19%
Electoral votes: 0
Ross Perot could be considered the first tech billionaire to successfully make a bid for the presidency. In 1962 Perot founded Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a Texas-based data processing firm which went on to win profitable government contracts. (He was also reportedly an early angel investor to Steve Jobs, having kicked himself for missing out on Microsoft.) His estimated net worth in 1992 was about $3 billion.
His campaign focused on balancing the federal budget, opposition to gun control, ending the outsourcing of jobs and harnessing technology to enhance democracy through "electronic town halls." He supported gay rights under the banner of individual rights, and favored education over affirmative action. He opposed America's involvement in the Persian Gulf War and brought the plight of American POWs left behind in Vietnam to light.
Perot polled extremely well early in the campaign. He led the polls at 39% in June. Then he abruptly withdrew from the race. His polling numbers slid. He re-entered in the fall, paying for a series of infomercials to reach voters. The unconventional ads worked. His polling numbers recovered somewhat, climbing to 20% in October as election day approached. Perot's 1992 campaign earned him 19% of the popular vote but no electoral votes. He ran again in 1996 under the banner of the Reform Party (which he founded), but won fewer votes.
Ralph Nader, Green Party, 2000
Polling Aug/Sept: 3%
Actual result: 3%
Electoral votes: 0
Although the Green party has existed in other countries since the 1970s, it's a relative latecomer to US politics. It first registered as a national political party with the FEC in 1991, but suffered a number of internal battles throughout the 1990s that fractured the party. Nevertheless, when several state-level Green parties successfully drafted famed consumer rights activist Ralph Nader to run as a Green candidate for president, things were bound to get interesting.
Nader's first campaign as a Green party candidate (he ran as a write-in candidate in some states four years before) was in 1996. Nader won less than 1% of the popular vote and no electoral votes, but helped qualify the party for ballot status in many states. He ran again with the Green party in 2000 (this time he was formally nominated at the party's national convention) and that's when things really got interesting.
Nader ran against Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. He campaigned against corporate power, against unjust prison sentences for drug-offenders, argued for campaign finance reform, and secured a spot on the ballot in 43 states. Like Anderson before him, he challenged the criteria for inclusion in presidential debates. After the outcome was decided by a historic Supreme Court decision, Gore supporters argued that Nader had been a spoiler: Had he not run in the election, the votes he received in Florida might have been cast for Gore. Nader attributed Gore's loss to the "quarter million Democrats who voted for Bush in Florida."
As for how the rise of third-party candidates in the polls could affect the race today, that depends a lot on whether they successfully get on the ballot. In 2016, both the Libertarian and the Green parties are expecting to be on the ballot in most states. In the last election, the Libertarian party succeeded in securing a slot on the ballot in 48 states. This cycle, the party is currently on the ballot in 40 states and is hoping to gain access to the remaining ten. The Green Party is currently on the ballot in 29 states, with 17 more in limbo. (They will not be on the ballot in two states, and will only have write-in access in the remaining two states.)
Whether or not they are allowed in the upcoming Presidential debates could also have a lot to do with the outcome. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which took over sponsoring the debates after the League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship in 1988, sets the criteria for candidates to participate in the debates. In addition to meeting presidential eligibility requirements and being on the ballot in enough states to have at least a mathematical chance of winning, the commission requires candidates receive an average of at least 15% support in five polls selected by the commission.
After their loss in 2012, both the Green Party and the Libertarian parties filed an anti-trust suit against the Commission on Presidential Debates as well as the Democratic and Republican national committees, claiming the three organizations conspired to keep third-party candidates off the debate stage. Their suit was dismissed. Level the Playing Field, a voter advocacy organization, has also filed suit against the F.E.C., saying the agency had unlawfully denied a petition to enact a ruling that would prevent debate staging organization's from using polling data to bar third-party candidates from participating. That case is still being decided. In the meantime, Johnson's polling numbers give him a shot, albeit slim, at meeting the debate commission's 15% requirement. The commission has said it will use polling data from mid-September to make a decision.
Ultimately, neither Johnson or Stein are likely to have a spoiler effect on the race unless they do well enough in any given state to make a difference in the electoral vote. And, as history has taught us (ahem, Nader), on a state-by-state basis that difference can lie well within the margin of error of most polls. In the meantime, expect Donald Trump to start looking and sounding more like a Libertarian in his social media, with plenty of live Facebook events from Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, Maine and Utah — all states where Johnson has polled in double digits in recent weeks. On the Democratic side, it's unlikely that Clinton will win over Green Party voters. They are a loyal bunch, consistently delivering 1-2% of the popular vote to their party in the five elections they've run a candidate. Her best bet is lower Republican voter turnout. Expect her campaign to continue to be reserved and controlled, in an effort to avoid incentivizing Republicans who would not otherwise head for the polls—especially in battleground states.
As for the potential third-party voters out there, your choice is as it has always been in high-stakes races: Move beyond your disillusionment and vote for a major party candidate, or vote for a third-party candidate and risk tightening the race in your state. Just how big a risk that is will depend on the state.
Credit: Cameron Sinclair assisted in compiling data for this piece.
Kate Stohr is a data journalist and community builder based in San Francisco, CA.