By BYRON TAU – – – –
Americans are growing curious about their third-party options, search data and recent polls show, as both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump look likely to reach the general election as the most unpopular presidential nominees in modern history.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 47% of registered voters would consider a generic third-party nominee, up from previous years in WSJ/NBC News polling. In 2012, 40% said they would consider a third-party candidate; in 2008, 38% did.
Though a third-party candidate is exceedingly unlikely to win — it has never happened in the history of the U.S. and only about 1.5% of voters cast a ballot for a third-party candidate in the two most recent elections — they have often played the role of spoilers who draw votes away from one or both of the major parties.
The potential spoilers in campaign 2016 include Libertarian Party and Green Party candidates, who have significant ballot access across the country and could attract some voters dissatisfied with the two major parties. The Libertarian Party is on the ballot in at least 32 states and hopes to expand that number significantly before Election Day. The Green Party has ballot access in at least 20 states, with plans to add another 24 states by November.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is considered the favorite for the Libertarian nomination, which will be decided this week at a convention in Florida. Jill Stein is considered the front-runner for the Green Party nomination.
In addition, a group of disaffected Republican politicians and consultants are looking to recruit a conservative candidate to challenge Mr. Trump — though many key ballot access deadlines have passed or are looming.
“The truth is, for a huge number of Americans, the thought of pulling the lever for either of [the major party candidates] is a lot like that of pulling the trigger of a gun pointed at our own heads,” said Liz Mair, a Republican consultant who has been working to find an alternative to Mr. Trump.
Voter dissatisfaction is reflected in other recent polling as well. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found that 44% of voters said they wanted a third-party option beyond Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton.
A poll by Data Targeting, which has been involved in efforts to recruit a third-party conservative candidate, found that 58% of respondents describe themselves as dissatisfied with the Republican and Democratic candidates, with 55% in favor of an independent presidential ticket. That includes 91% of voters under 29 years old who would like to see an independent effort.
Interest in third-party candidates is also reflected in Google Trends data. Google searches for the terms “third party candidate” are at their highest level recorded, according to data compiled by the digital marketing company iQuanti. Search interest in “independent” or “third party” spiked in March, as it became clearer that Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were on track to be the nominees, the analysis showed.
John McAfee, a prominent businessman running for the Libertarian nomination, had the most search volume among third-party candidates between October and April, with nearly 375,000 searches — though he may be drawing search volume independent of his presidential aspirations. In second place, Mr. Johnson has recorded about 350,000 search queries in seven months, while Ms. Stein has recorded about 200,000.
Though a third-party candidate has never won a presidential election, their role in U.S. political history is rich. One historian, Richard Hofstadter, referred to them as “bees” that die shortly after they sting, with one of the major parties usually adopting their issues and bringing their voters into a broader coalition.
Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party bid in 1912 drew nearly 30% of the vote, helping to split the Republican vote and bolstering the election of the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. In that election, Socialist candidate Eugene Debs also drew 6% of the vote.
The 1948 and 1968 elections saw presidential bids from prominent Southern politicians Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, respectively, who both ran in part to protest the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights. They helped further the divide between Southern voters and the Democratic Party that lasts to this day.
More recently, businessman Ross Perot drew more than 20% of the vote in 1992 in an independent presidential bid. Critics said he was partly to blame for incumbent George H.W. Bush losing the election to Bill Clinton. Many Democrats blame Ralph Nader for the 2000 election of George W. Bush, when he drew nearly 3% of the national popular vote on the Green Party ticket.