For Hillary and Donald, the fringe candidates matter
US presidential elections are always two-horse races. No candidate from any party other than the Republicans or Democrats has won the White House in over 150 years (which is to say, not since the Republicans became a major force), and nor has any even come close. Even Roosevelt in 1912 – by a huge distance the most successful third-party candidate in that time – fell a very long way short of defeating Wilson.
That’s not to say that minor candidates don’t matter; they do (or at least, they can). To the extent that they do count, it’s in how their support affects the main players. Notoriously, the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, almost certainly decided the 2000 election for Bush against Gore by his presence swinging Florida and with it, the country. Of course, it wasn’t the only reason why Bush won but it was a necessary one, as it turned out.
This year, the minor candidates matter more than usual. In the four elections between 2000 and 2012, they took no more than 1.5% between them whereas at the moment, Jill Stein for the Greens and Gary Johnson for the Libertarians are each polling above that level – and in Johnson’s case, way above that level (and more than the gap between Trump and Clinton).
Both the Huffington Post and RCP averages put him on about 9%, which is within striking distance of the 15% needed for inclusion in the presidential debates. The surge in support from the 1% he won in 2012 is unlikely to be down to many positive factors, although unlike some minor candidates (and, arguably, the occasional major one), Johnson is no crank or lightweight. Both he and his running mate, William Weld, are former governors (of New Mexico and Massachusetts, respectively).
More realistically, his support – and that going to Stein – is a protest against the dreadful quality offered up by the Republicans and the Democrats; one which in Johnson’s case could easily be seen as having found a more credible home than it would with Trump.
So for once, they matter. They matter both because of the options they offer the electorate and because of the dynamics they introduce to the race. Negative campaigning is always a massive part of any American election and given the library of material that Trump and Clinton have to throw at the other, it’s likely to be even more prevalent this time. But negative campaigning only works in relative terms: it doesn’t make you more popular, it just aims to make your opponent more unpopular. That’s fine as long as there isn’t a third or fourth option to which these disillusioned voters can decamp – which this time, there is.
Even so, if a voter is sufficiently fearful of one candidate being elected (and they believe in the possibility of that outcome), then they’ll stick with the best-placed alternative who could beat them – of which there’ll be but one option. It’s only if they’re not sufficiently fearful that they can afford to cast a plague on both houses.
On that score, the presence of Johnson ought to be a serious headache for Trump. A credible ex-Republican is a natural home for GOP voters who don’t trust Trump as much as a Green is a natural bolthole for Sanders supporters disdainful of Hillary. However, while many American voters do hate and fear her, and while there’s good reason to be contemptuous of a DC machine politician masquerading as an outsider, it will be far easier for her to sell Trump’s danger to both the centre and her own radical wing than for him to sell hers – hence no doubt Stein polling at less than half that of Johnson.
Will that continue? I think it will. Not only are the dynamics outlined above likely to continue through the rest of the campaign but there’s an outside possibility that if Johnson does gain support, even if it’s just for negative reasons, he’ll start receiving considerable coverage from a media interested in a new angle. That presence rises much further still if he can make the debates. Stein, by contrast, will get nowhere near.
In all probability, he won’t reach the debates. If it looks like becoming a possibility, no doubt Trump will start sending some fire his way – though that of itself would affect the nature of his fight against Hillary. And having built him up, the media would be likely to start dissecting his policies a good deal more critically, and there’s plenty to dissect. For that reason alone – and there are a good many more, from the electoral system to his party’s campaign organisation – he should only be touched on the betting markets for trading purposes and only by the brave.
All the same, Johnson’s campaign is more than a nuisance for Trump. It’s not just Republican voters could switch; there’s the genuine risk of the Libertarian gaining endorsements from high-profile GOP politicians. So far, he has but a single congressman to his name but there is the intriguing possibility that he could bag the immensely bigger prize of the Republicans’ 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Were he to do so, it could easily be the precedent needed for other GOP Trump-sceptics to follow suit.
Party loyalty will probably prevent that but as we’re seeing in the UK, what loyalty to a party means is wide open to interpretation. Never underestimate the ability of a politician to rationalise a supporting case for a preferred conclusion. Johnson might just be the right man in the right place at the right time to siphon support from Trump without GOP-inclined voters having to muddy their consciences with backing Hillary. She’d end up comfortably back in the White House all the same.