December 29, 2015
Rasmussen Reports recently released a pre-Xmas survey measuring a potential Trump-Clinton matchup. So? This is a common poll topic, and we know better than to take this too seriously 300+ days before anyone would actually choose for real.
There’s one wrinkle to Rasmussen’s approach that makes this a more useful than normal snapshot. They aren’t strongly pushing respondents to pick a favorite. More important than the margin between Hillary and Donald (+1 for her), is their combined total of 73%.
A full 22% preferred another (unnamed) option, while 5% said they were unsure. The normal Trump-Clinton survey has 88-95% of voters picking one or the other. They are not given a third option, only the opportunity to say they’re unsure. The 5% dunno number from Rasmussen is in line with those results.
Which scenario do you believe? Absent a credible third-party run, ultimately well over 90% of voters would hold their noses and pick one or the other. But this shows a lot of interest in another option.
Political junkies get worked up about two normally unlikely to impossible outcomes. A deadlocked/brokered/uncertain convention and a legitimate third-party run. The first of these (on the GOP side) is now more likely than any time in the last two generations. What about the second?
What’s the definition of a legit third-party run?
The widest definition is any time that extra candidate changes the outcome. Ralph Nader achieved this in 2000. Hanging chads only became an issue in Florida because Nader took enough votes from Al Gore to give George W. Bush a chance to win the state.
While he was a spoiler, Nader didn’t qualify for the presidential debates and received little media coverage. His ultimate impact was a relative surprise (though with the election close for months, this was somehow mostly overlooked).
John Anderson polled fairly well for a few months in 1980 before fading to single digits. He did participate in a debate with Ronald Reagan, one boycotted by Jimmy Carter. Reagan and Carter ultimately faced off without him. No impact on the results either.
What about winning actual electoral votes? George Wallace won a few southern states in 1968, Strom Thurmond did the same in 1948. Wallace may have helped swing the election result, Thurmond would have if Thomas Dewey had won another couple states over Harry Truman (California and Ohio were razor thin).
Nobody thought either of them could actually win the presidency. Best case they could have prevented the main candidates from an outright win, throwing the election to the House of Representatives. Let’s narrow the definition a bit further.
In 1912, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate. Given that he’s on Mount Rushmore, won his 1904 election in a landslide and was able to push chosen successor William Howard Taft into the White House in 1908, he probably counts.
He also wasn’t going to win. Though he actually finished second, garnering more popular and electoral votes than Taft, Woodrow Wilson won easily. Some Republicans stayed loyal to Taft, and Wilson was a strong nominee, the Democrats best since Grover Cleveland.
The best opportunity was Ross Perot in 1992. Incumbent Bush 41 was unpopular, challenger Bill Clinton unproven. For a while in the spring, Perot ran ahead of Clinton in polls, almost even with Bush. Then he dropped out and back in, never recovering.
It’s hard to make a case Perot would have won, but unlike any of his predecessors (including T.R.) he ran fairly evenly throughout the country.
While he won no states, and only finished second in a couple of them, the country was open to a third option and he finished with more than 20% of the popular vote.
The only way a third-party candidate will ever create a true opportunity is if both major party candidates are unpopular. While the eventual President Clinton took some time to win voters over and got off to a shaky start in the primary season, by Election Day he was at least a net neutral.
He wound up with the same 42% share as Wilson back in 1912. As most of us would agree, his wife lacks both his popular appeal and relative blank slate. The Clintons were actually new to us back then. While Hillary now has slightly better numbers than Trump, she’s still upside down.
This isn’t likely to change. If anything, a general election campaign might drop her numbers. Meanwhile, Trump, while showing more ability to change minds than most expected, is still sub-40% favorable with the full public. Both candidates score even worse on trustworthiness.
It’s pretty much the perfect storm for a third candidate to run as an anything is better than you two candidate. The problem is finding that individual. It’s not as easy as it seems.
Jim Webb, late of a barely noticed Democratic nomination campaign and awkward debate performance, is making noise about running. In theory, he’d be great. Elected to the Senate as a Democrat, serving as Navy Secretary in the Reagan years, he’s truly bipartisan.
Except he’s not a good candidate. Webb hates raising money, isn’t a natural debater, and is the same age as Trump and Clinton. It’s hard to imagine someone who didn’t make a dent in the primary suddenly contending for the presidency.
Perot never considered running for a major party nomination, and Roosevelt actually defeated Taft in several Republican primaries before losing out in the smoke-filled rooms at the convention.
That same losers tinge prevents John Kasich from being a reasonable option. Like Webb, he’s proven not particularly effective at the presidential level. While he’s also upside down on favorability, a third of the country still has no opinion, so he would have plenty of room for improvement.
Democrats actually like him slightly better than Republicans, so he would act as a real third option instead of a GOP spoiler. While he’s too moderate for the Republican primary electorate, the country does look quite a bit like Ohio. Repeating his approach there might work.
If he hadn’t already tried to get nominated. Absent that, a properly calibrated version of Kasich might have an actual chance of winning a 3-way contest as an Independent.
The other challenge is when to jump in. Perot began early, declaring his candidacy and working on ballot access before the Democrats chose a candidate. If Marco Rubio is the nominee, an extra candidate is superfluous.
While some think a Ted Cruz nomination would also encourage an additional candidate, that person would serve as a potential spoiler, not a real contender. Rasmussen is showing 63% of Republicans would vote for Trump in a race including Hillary. Cruz would score higher, leaving no room.
Throwing together a campaign at the (relative) last minute is only possible with a lot of name recognition, money or both. It’s imaginable Michael Bloomberg would finally make good on his quadrennial threat to throw his hat in the ring.
He won’t win, two New York billionaires is at least one too many, but don’t be surprised if he tries. There’s way too much available space to keep interested parties from giving it a real think.