Sabato's Crystal Ball

Three’s a Crowd: Where Third-Party Candidates Might Have an Impact

Geoffrey Skelley, Political Analyst, U.Va. Center for Politics November 1st, 2012

American electoral history is mainly a story of two parties. But every now and then, a third party or independent candidate makes a significant imprint on an election. In recent years, the main impact of third-party candidacies has been to play the role of spoiler, hurting one major-party candidate more than another. For example, Ralph Nader seemingly helped George W. Bush in 2000 by winning many left-leaning votes that might have gone to Al Gore. Obviously, the result in Florida that year was famous (or infamous), with Bush only winning by 537 votes while Nader won 97,488 votes. But Gore also could have won New Hampshire to win the election; he narrowly lost the Granite State by 7,211 votes while Nader collected 22,198. Thinking further back, many have argued that George H.W. Bush might have won in 1992 had Ross Perot not run.

In 2012, there are a handful of states where a third-party candidate could hinder either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama’s electoral hopes — or cause havoc down the ballot in a few key Senate contests.

Presidential interference

Because only a small number of swing states will decide the final result in the presidential tilt, there are just a few places where a third-party candidate could affect the electoral environment. Still, with the national polling average exactly tied as of late Wednesday, they could really matter this Tuesday.

One third-party candidate who could make noise is Virgil Goode, the Constitution Party standard bearer. Back in September, the Crystal Ball discussed how the conservative Goode’s qualification for the Virginia ballot did not make Obama a sure bet to win Virginia. Still, it’s possible that Goode could aid the incumbent’s bid for reelection. A former member of the House of Representatives from Virginia, first as a Democrat, then an Independent, then a Republican, Goode will receive relatively few votes nationwide — in 2008, Constitution candidate Charles Baldwin collected just 0.15% of the national popular vote. But Goode’s potential importance lies in the fact that he represented a district in Virginia, a key swing state this cycle. As a conservative candidate, Goode will disproportionately take votes from Romney’s column. The question is, how many? The concern for Romney’s camp is that Goode hails from southern and southwestern Virginia, a conservative part of the state that features many rural voters who dislike the president but are not easily attracted to someone with Romney’s profile. But Republicans may be in luck: An early October Public Policy Poll found Goode only getting 1% in Virginia, a fall-off from July when PPP found Goode at 9%. Meanwhile, a much more recent Fox News poll also found Goode at just 1%. Reaching the 1% mark in Virginia seems to be the best possible outcome for Goode. However, if the margin between Obama and Romney is only a few thousand votes, Goode’s total could prove decisive.

While Goode’s candidacy may only impact Virginia’s result, Libertarian Gary Johnson could play spoiler for Romney in New Hampshire and possibly either Obama or Romney in Colorado and Nevada. Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, has a larger national profile that makes him seemingly more formidable than Goode or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. In New Hampshire, a state where the motto is “Live Free or Die,” it’s only appropriate that Johnson, with his “Live Free” slogan, might actually win a fair number of votes. In Suffolk University’s most recent poll of New Hampshire, Johnson won 2% in the poll, and the second choice for most of his supporters was Mitt Romney. As the 2000 race in the Granite State proved, all it might take is a few thousand third-party votes to shift the winner there.

Meanwhile, in Nevada and Colorado, polling splits over whether or not Johnson might hurt Romney or Obama more. In the Silver State, Suffolk’s recent poll was similar to its survey in New Hampshire: Johnson’s supporters’ second choice was mainly Romney. However, PPP’s most recent take on Nevada seemed to suggest that Johnson could steal more votes from Obama than Romney, moving Obama’s edge from 51%-47% to just 49%-47% when Johnson was included. Similarly, in Colorado, PPP’s Oct. 25 poll found Johnson drawing more from Obama’s side, shifting Obama’s lead there from 51%-47% to 49%-46%. On the other hand, SurveyUSA’s numbers showed Johnson’s presence having a neutral effect, taking equally from both camps in the Centennial State.

Remember that much of this is speculation: the small sample sizes of third-party supporters make it difficult to draw any finite conclusions about who takes away from whom. Moreover, many polls aren’t asking about third-party candidates by name, reducing the data we have to analyze. But regardless, Goode and Johnson could conceivably alter the outcomes in some key swing states.

Senate shenanigans

Third-party candidates will also have a role to play in some tight Senate races on Nov. 6. The most notable name to watch is that of Angus King, the independent running in Maine. As the Pine Tree State’s likely next senator, he’s far more than a spoiler.

While King appears to be the only new third-party candidate on course to winning a Senate race this cycle (Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, will comfortably win reelection in Vermont), there are a few others who may play a role in Indiana, Missouri and Montana.

In the Hoosier State, some Republicans remain upset over the defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar (R) by state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) in the May primary. Although Lugar has said that he’s supportive of Mourdock, he has made it clear that he will not campaign for his fellow Republican, and Lugar’s defeat gave Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) a shot in the general election that he never would have had against Lugar. The Libertarian candidate, Andy Horning, could be an outlet for some Lugar supporters who remain too embittered over the veteran senator’s primary defeat to vote for Mourdock. A Howey/DePauw University poll in late September found Horning garnering 7%, helping propel Donnelly ahead of Mourdock 40%-38%; a Donnelly internal released on Oct. 23 offered similar numbers. Importantly, those polls came out prior to Mourdock’s controversial debate comments regarding rape on Oct. 23. A Mourdock internal released a few days after the debate found the race in a dead heat, 44%-44%, with Horning receiving 6%. Given that Romney should carry Indiana by at least 10% in November, the Republican presidential candidate may still be able to carry Mourdock across the finish line to victory. But Horning’s presence on the ballot is another boost to Donnelly, who we now see as a narrow favorite.

For some Missouri Republicans, Libertarian Jonathan Dine could be their Andy Horning. In the aftermath of the “legitimate rape” comment, Rep. Todd Akin (R) has seen his once-bright Senate prospects dim in another Romney state. Republicans who refuse to vote for Akin may instead cast their votes for Dine if they don’t want to vote for incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) or simply abstain from the race. PPP’s Oct. 21 poll found McCaskill leading Akin 46%-40%, with Dine picking up 6% of the vote. A previous PPP poll had found Dine winning as much as 9%. An even more recent Mason-Dixon poll found Dine winning 4%, leaving McCaskill ahead of Akin by two points, 45%-43%. While it would be foolish to discount Akin’s chances entirely (Romney will win Missouri handily), having a third option on the ballot may only improve McCaskill’s odds of winning reelection.

Moving further west, Montana is the scene of one of the most closely fought Senate races in the country. And once again, the Libertarian candidate might be doing some damage to Republican chances. PPP found in mid-October that Dan Cox (L) was winning 8% of the Big Sky vote, helping incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D) remain narrowly ahead of Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) 45%-43%. Rasmussen’s most recent survey showed the race tied, further underscoring the importance of any vote that goes to Cox. It’s also important to remember that Montanans have shown themselves willing to vote for third-party candidates in the past at the presidential level: in 2008, Ron Paul won over 2% of the vote there and Ralph Nader won nearly 6% in 2000.

Also, another Libertarian — Marc Victor — might have a role to play in the close race in Arizona.

Conclusion

The one caveat to all this third-party talk is that polling support for third-party candidates is typically higher than the actual percentage of the vote third-party candidates win on Election Day. Some voters who would prefer to support someone besides the Democrat or the Republican will decide that they have to support a major-party candidate because they will probably be “throwing their vote away” if they back the third-party option. Nonetheless, it’s possible that a few thousand votes could determine the outcomes in some states at the presidential level as well as in some tight senate races. Therefore, while we will all closely watch the Democratic and Republican returns across the country on Nov. 6, keep an eye on some of these third-party candidates to see just how much of the vote they are winning — one or two of them could spoil a major-party candidate’s Election Day.