Gary Johnson

Presidential politics have split the country, Hillary Clinton on one side, Donald Trump on the other. With existentially different plans for America’s future and controversy following both like a shadow, they’re the most unpopular nominees in history. As comedian Trevor Noah said, “both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running against the only person who they could possibly beat.”

For Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, it’s the perfect storm.

Johnson, the ex-governor of New Mexico and former marijuana industry executive, and Stein, a physician and environmental activist, both ran for president in 2012. They won a meager 1.35 percent of the vote between the two of them, but 2016 could offer some redemption. As bona fide political outsiders holding unconventional ideologies, Johnson and Stein speak directly to the anti-Washington, broken-system sentiment that’s saturated much of the current election cycle.

More significantly, though, they offer an alternative to what many voters feel is a lesser-of-two-evils conundrum between Clinton and Trump.

Net favorability polls certainly show how voters feel stuck between a rock and a hard place within the two-party system. After the conventions, Clinton’s rating has risen to -10.9 percent, her highest mark since February. In the weeks following the Republican National Convention, Trump’s plummeted to -27.6 percent. Neither candidate has ever had a net positive rating. In contrast, last election’s Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, had a net favorability of -1.3 percent around this time in the 2012 race. In August 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain both notched positive scores, hitting 22 percent and 18 percent net favorability ratings, respectively.

The widespread distaste for both nominees this year has left many feeling snubbed by Democrats and Republicans alike, potentially pushing voters outside party lines for their presidential pick. In head-to-head polling, Clinton leads Trump 48 percent to 40.3 percent as of August 9. But when including third-party candidates in the mix, support for Clinton and Trump drops by about 4 points. Nationally, Johnson currently polls around 9 percent and Stein stands at 3.8 percent. This momentum is particularly impressive considering their performance in 2012. If either candidate surpasses 15 percent in the polls, they become eligible to participate in the presidential debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates may reportedly give Johnson or Stein some leeway if either gets close enough to the threshold.

But who exactly is each third-party contender stealing support from? Conventional wisdom holds that Johnson attracts laissez-faire Republicans with his small-government, free-market stances. Meanwhile, many left-leaning Democrats are drawn to Stein’s unwavering liberal ideology. Ever since Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ended his presidential bid and endorsed Clinton, Stein has tried to court his more die-hard, liberal supporters. Many have flocked to the Green Party, but a significant chunk have also defected to Johnson. A recent CNN poll found that among Sanders supporters, 12 percent say they now support Stein, and 10 percent favor Johnson.

Johnson has also made real strides among Republicans in the “Never Trump” movement. The Libertarian received his first congressional endorsement over the weekend from Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia. Even Romney told CNN he’d consider voting for Johnson. If Johnson’s running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, topped the ticket, Romney said he’d have no qualms going Libertarian in 2016.

It’s likely that Stein will primarily draw voters from the far left. Graphiq politics site InsideGov found that she holds universally progressive views on individual rights, as well as on domestic, economic and defense issues. In fact, she is by far the most liberal presidential candidate this cycle.

On the other hand, Johnson is more ideologically moderate. He can appeal to some on the left with his liberal stances on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. His conservative views on the economy and the role of government could make him attractive to the political right.

All that said, it’s borderline impossible for either third-party candidate to win the White House. Stein isn’t even on the ballot in all 50 states, and Johnson admitted to The New Yorker that his victory strategy involves a long shot runoff scenario that ends with a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. It’s unlikely that either will even win a single electoral vote — the last third-party candidate to do so was segregationist and Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968.

Even so, third parties could mean trouble for Clinton and Trump. If the turnout for either Johnson or Stein is large enough, either could become a “spoiler” candidate.

In political junkie jargon, a “spoiler” is a candidate with no prospects of winning but who affects the success of someone else on the ballot. It’s someone who takes away votes from a competitive contender and hinders his or her chances of winning.

Spoilers have a history of disrupting elections. In 1968, Wallace — running as an Independent — broke the Democratic Party’s stronghold in the South, and contributed to Republican Richard Nixon’s election. In 1992, some argued Independent billionaire Ross Perot thwarted former Republican President George H.W. Bush’s re-election, though the New York Times later concluded that wasn’t the case.

In 2000, however, a third-party candidacy may have directly determined the next president. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received only 2.74 percent of the overall popular vote, but his supporters likely cost Democrat Al Gore the state of Florida — and thus the election. Republican George W. Bush officially won Florida by a mere 537 votes, giving him the 25 electoral votes needed to push him over the 270 mark required to win the White House. Political scientist George Pomper found that 47 percent of Nader’s 97,488 voters in Florida would have otherwise chosen Gore, 21 percent would’ve picked Bush and 32 percent wouldn’t have voted at all. In that scenario, Gore would’ve received about 26,000 additional votes, far more than he needed to win the state and thus its critical 25 Electoral College votes. Had Nader not run, Gore would have likely been the 43rd president.

In theory, voting for a third-party candidate has its appeal. A person like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein may align more closely with someone’s political ideology. What better way to express dissatisfaction with business as usual in Washington than voting for a complete outsider?

But in practice, third parties don’t win. In 2016, Johnson and Stein will either have no effect at all or spoil the election for the candidate their voters align with more closely. For instance, a third-party voter who would otherwise pick Clinton takes away a vote from the Democrats, and transitively gives one to Trump. Vice versa, if enough Republicans vote for Johnson over Trump, it would narrow the margin in Clinton’s favor.

In his speech at the Republican National Convention, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz got booed when he told attendees to “vote your conscience,” a move that Johnson called an implicit nod to his campaign. If the “vote your conscience” directive means supporting a third party on Nov. 8, Americans should know they may inadvertently contribute to the victory of the person they dislike most.

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