by Ashley MedinaMonmouth University Polling Institute graduate assistant
As it becomes increasingly likely that the American public is now looking at their two major party candidates for the 2016 election, pollsters will begin to test the head to head matchup between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with more frequency. However, what many of these pollsters may fail to account for are the number of voters who may be looking for another option come election day.
A recent NBC News/Survey Monkey poll found 16% of voters nationwide say they would vote for a generic “3rd party” candidate rather than vote for either Clinton or Trump. These numbers suggest that a substantial number of U.S. voters may be seeking another option this November. While the U.S. electorate has expressed similar sentiments in the past, a single third party candidate has received that large of a vote share only once before.
In 1992, self-funded Reform Party candidate Ross Perot won nearly 19% of the total 20% of votes earned by independent and third party candidates. The next largest showing for a single independent or 3rd party candidate came in the 1968 presidential election when American Independent Party candidate George Wallace earned nearly all 14% of the third-party candidate votes that year. Perot ran again in 1996, but this time, earned just 8% of the 10% total vote that independent and 3rdparty candidates received. The 1996 election marked just the third time since 1948 that third party and independent candidates combined received at least double digit support.
If current polling remains consistent, the third party gains in this upcoming presidential election could reach double digits. However, there are some caveats facing third party candidates during this cycle. For one, there will likely be several candidates vying for independent and third party votes. Additionally, many of them are largely unknown to most Americans and are likely to remain unknown unless they can make it to the debate stage. In order to do so, these candidates must appear on enough state ballots to mathematically earn an Electoral College victory as well as average at least 15% in national polls. Without the opportunity to participate in presidential debates, they will struggle to increase their name recognition.
However, only three polls to date have included individual third party candidates. The first of these, a national Monmouth University Poll (March 24, 2016) taken in March, found that in a match-up between the two front runners, Hillary Clinton held a ten point lead over Donald Trump. When Libertarian third party candidate Gary Johnson was added to the mix, both Clinton’s and Trump’s numbers fell as Johnson pulled in 11% of the vote. This pattern was mirrored in a similar national Public Policy Poll where Clinton held a 6 point lead over Trump, but Clinton’s lead shrunk to 4 points when two third party candidates were added to the mock ballot, with Johnson at 4% and Green Party candidate Jill Stein at 2%. In a more recent national Fox News Poll, results were consistent with these third party findings. In this poll, when respondents were asked to choose first between Clinton and Trump, Trump led Clinton by 3 points, but when given the option of choosing between Clinton, Trump, and Johnson, Trump’s and Clinton’s vote share dropped 3 points each as Gary Johnson garnered 10% of the vote.
Given high voter discontent, it is likely that the third party vote will be higher than average this year, but we will not know just how high unless other polls include third party candidates in their surveys. As the rules stand, including these third party candidates in more polls is necessary if they are to have a chance at participating in the presidential debates.
The national polling requirements for third party candidates are rather unrealistic given the fact that a third party candidate was only once able to cross the 15% margin in the past 70 years. A look at Wallace’s regional appeal in 1968 suggests that this requirement may be unfair, as Wallace was able to earn enough Electoral College votes to impact the final outcome. More recently, in 2000, it is possible Ralph Nader’s 3% share of the vote was a contributing factor in that year’s race.
With this in mind, it is clear that even five percentage points in the polls can reflect the mood and preferences of significant segments of the U.S. voting base and as such, the voices of third party supporters should be represented on the presidential debate stage. It is for this reason that more pollsters should use methodologically sound ways to include these candidates in their polls.