May 8, 2016
We have three presumptive nominees. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Gary Johnson. Two of these candidates obviously get more attention than the other one. Though pundits have discussed a third party run for months, it was in reference to Michael Bloomberg or a conservative running as an Independent Republican.
Bloomberg has ruled himself out and the conservative intelligentsia hasn’t found a prospect yet. Let’s assume two things. Hillary completes her march to the Democratic nomination, leaving true blue Berners with a few unsavory choices. Neither Ben Sasse, nor any other prominent #NeverTrumper is up for running as a third party candidate.
While I can’t guarantee this outcome, odds are strongly in favor of it. It’s safe to say at least 20 percent of Americans are opposed to both Clinton and Trump. If you expand this to voters with at least significant reservations about both, it’s an even bigger number. That doesn’t mean they’ll stay home or write in a candidate, or even automatically choose a lesser party option.
Some will decide on a clearly lesser of two evils option. We have months for disgust for one candidate to overpower reservations about the other. Still, it’s safe to say a larger percentage of the electorate is up for looking in another direction than usual. This isn’t Ross Perot in 1992, who presented another view that many liked. This is a vacuum looking for a candidate.
We’re in the middle of a significant realignment. These things happen in American politics every generation or two. It’s the stuff that keeps political science professors employed. Donald Trump’s GOP (and it’s his at least until November) does not resemble anything we’ve seen.
As we’re noticing, this leaves a solid chunk of what was the foundation of the Republican Party on the outside looking in. Hillary isn’t exactly a substitute. While a few moderate Republicans who detest Trump’s temperament will opt for her, that won’t easily work for those who both consider him intolerant and not conservative enough.
A Sasse run would make them feel better. But it probably won’t happen. The other issue is the primary cycle has revealed the narrow appeal of a true Conservative Party. It’s not like someone running on a National Review approved platform would expect support from Berners. Sure, Trumpists are a minority, but so are Ryan-style conservatives.
NOTE: Some would argue Ryan isn’t even a true conservative. By that standard, conservatives are an even more narrow slice of the electorate than I’m figuring. My definition includes him, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. Trump is a populist with some conservative positions. It’s possible to consider yourself a conservative and support Trump, but that doesn’t make Trump a Reagan-style conservative.
By nature, political parties are coalitions. Especially in the United States, which makes it difficult for third, fourth, fifth parties to exist. The FDR Democrats combined northern urban ethnics with Southern Democrats. They had little in common, but both realized they couldn’t win national elections on their own.
Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan built what we think of as the modern (though now seemingly extinct) GOP coalition over a period of elections, taking those disaffected Southern Democrats and adding them to pro-business Republicans, evangelicals, conservative intellectuals, and defense hawks.
You can’t win national elections without a coalition, and all coalitions eventually crumble due to frictions within the components. For the past 80 plus years, Democrats have one when they could successfully combine enough interest groups to pull together a majority, and lost when ideology makes it hard to keep everyone inside the tent.
Hillary is attempting to stitch together a winning margin from various groups, using Trump as a point of leverage. Her problem is Berners aren’t on board with this. You’re seeing polls that show a huge majority of Democrats would support Clinton against Trump. This understates her problem. Not everyone who would force themselves to choose her in a poll will turn out for her in November.
There’s also a big difference between registered Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents. We see this in each open primary. Even when Sanders wins, Clinton does better with registered Dems. But Bernie’s immense advantage with unaffiliated voters puts him ahead.
You can argue (and they do) whether the nomination should go to the candidate with a clear majority of support among actual Democrats, or the person who most appeals to non-Democrats, but there’s a distinct difference in their appeal. As Hillary attempts to pull in centrist Republicans and Independents who find Trump too intemperate, she moves further away from Berners.
Her campaign is banking on Trump being so distasteful that they are forced to support her. One of the things that would torpedo a conservative option is the difficulty in putting Ryan/Rubio/Cruz Republicans together with Berners to get to anything approaching a plurality in most states.
That’s where Gary Johnson is useful. Like Rand Paul was hoping to, he has the ability to combine some conservatives and some Berners. He’s most certainly not a socialist, so those particularly drawn to that part of the Sanders agenda are likely not interested. But his appeal isn’t based strictly on free college tuition and socking it to the 1%.
He’s quirky, and opposed to prosecuting marijuana users. Johnson is quirky and served as CEO of a cannibis company. He’s more overtly pro-pot than Bernie. Libertarians are not big business corporatists, so those especially anti-Hillary because of her Wall Street ties, the Clinton Foundation, etc., can find safe harbor with Johnson.
For Ted Cruz conservatives, he’s a tougher sell. Johnson is not going to spend time worrying about restricting bathroom access. He’s most certainly not a social conservative, though he does believe Roe v. Wade was inappropriate judicial legislation. He does offer the inclusion that some anti-Trump conservatives are more comfortable with.
He’s also an entrepreneur and reliable fiscal conservative. Johnson build a large construction company from starting as a handyman while working his way through college. As a popular two-term governor of New Mexico (term limits prevented a third round), he cut spending repeatedly, vetoing up a storm.
While some Sanders voters will go home to Hillary, and some conservatives will support Trump or continue searching for another option, it’s not insane to think Johnson could stitch together enough Berners and enough conservatives to accomplish several objectives.
First, by reaching 5% in November, the Libertarian Party would qualify for federal funding in 2020. We have no idea what the landscape is going to look like four years from now. Whether Trump wins or loses, everything is in flux. If the GOP shatters, and/or Hillary is running for re-election as a centrist a Libertarian candidate might make an even bigger impact next time.
Second, a third party candidate qualifies for the fall debates if they reach a 15% poll average. That seems a bit high for someone many/most Americans have never heard of. But Johnson did just hit 11% in a Monmouth poll, and that’s with plenty of respondents being unable to pick him out in a police lineup.
Back in 1980, John Anderson was regularly in that polling range against Jimmy Carter and Reagan in early fall. At that time, debate rules were less fixed, and he wound up participating in one debate with Reagan that Carter opted out of. He lost ground in the final month and wound up in single digits, but a similar trajectory from Johnson would get him included.
The anticipated Clinton-Trump duel would look different with a third wheel. Johnson could make things very uncomfortable for his opponents and/or could benefit from them slinging mud on each other. Either way it would completely change the dynamic and give each of them something extra to prepare for.
Third, he absolutely could change the outcome. In 2000, Ralph Nader’s presence swung Florida from Al Gore to George W. Bush. Johnson could make things very difficult for Hillary, or impossible for Trump. Or he could impact both evenly. Normally, a third party candidate loses ground near the end as voters decide to pick someone with a chance to win.
With two lead candidates facing historic levels of unpopularity, it’s completely reasonable to think voters could surge to a third choice to avoid picking a candidate who might win. Rather than wanting to weigh in and help choose a winner, they may not want that on their conscience. Johnson is more credible as a candidate than Nader, without being a threat to win. He has enough for Berners and #NeverTrumpers to agree with to vote for him.
While it’s too early to predict whether he’s more likely to wind up with 3 to 5 percent, or get closer to the Perot Zone of actual relevance, Gary Johnson is going to be a major factor in the fall campaign. If he plays his cards right, he may even find himself more able to build on Ron Paul’s foundation than his own son was.
If the country has room for a Trumpian populist, there’s room for a Libertarian too.