When 97,488 Floridians voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election, Americans learned the potential significance of third-party candidates. George Bush won Florida by only 537 votes that year, giving him the presidency.
Striking was exit poll data showing that 46 percent of those Nader voters said they would have voted for Gore if forced to choose between the two mainstream candidates. A mere 14 percent said they would have chosen Bush.
Hillary Clinton may have a similar problem. Polling data out last week demonstrates that more voters are moving to the Libertarian ticket of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and his running mate Gary Johnson.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll from Sept. 11 showed Clinton up by eight points nationally in a two-way race, but only up by five points when Johnson and Jill Stein are included. A CBS/New York Times poll on Sept.15 showed Clinton losing 4 points to Trump’s 2 when third parties are included with Libertarian candidate Johnson at 8 points and Green candidate Jill Stein at 4.
In specific battleground states we find similar trends. A Quinnipiac University poll in Ohio from Sept. 8 shows Trump’s lead increasing from just one to four points when third parties are included, with Clinton’s share of the vote dropping eight points. In the ever-important state of Florida, Public Policy Polling finds Clinton winning the state in a two-way race, but losing to Trump when third parties are included. For a number of battleground states like Florida, the “Johnson” effect is increasingly the difference between winning and losing for Clinton.
Polls in the battleground state of New Hampshire illustrate this very pattern. Since the middle of June, while Clinton’s numbers have fallen by four points, Johnson’s have risen by six. Meanwhile Trump’s numbers have remained steady near 35 points where he has been for most of the summer. Other polls indicate a similar pattern in Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Arizona.
Even more concerning are the results from a recent Quinnipiac national poll showing that Clinton’s support is hemorrhaging from a key Democratic constituency, young voters. The poll found that if respondents had the option to choose Johnson or Stein, Clinton’s support among the under 35 demographic plummets 24 points compared to only 8 points for Trump. And these young voters appear to heading toward Gary Johnson who registers almost 30 percent support in the four-way poll.
These findings could mean that the biggest threat to a Clinton victory is not Donald Trump, but Gary Johnson. Thus, more important than chastising Trump for his latest gaff, the Clinton operation should direct their fire at Gary Johnson. While a direct assault by Hillary Clinton herself may be problematic, such a play by her surrogates, super-PAC’s, and supporters could bring these wavering anti-Trump voters who are increasingly siding with Johnson back into the Clinton camp. Yet, Clinton’s current strategy does not seem to include engaging Johnson in any way.
That said, such a strategy does not come without potential danger. Engaging Johnson risks legitimating him and injecting even more uncertainty into an already volatile campaign. But, the drip, drip, drip of bad polls continues showing Clinton’s national lead over Trump almost gone.
The latest LA Times/USC national tracking poll from September 14 showed Trump up 5 points, his largest lead in months. If these polling trends hold, the status quo strategy puts Clinton at risk of sharing the same fate as Al Gore. The Clinton camp must train its sights on the Johnson-Weld ticket, the “Nader 2.0” that if left unchecked, could hand Trump the nuclear codes and the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that has the entire political establishment scared to death.
Chris Haynes is assistant professor of political science at the University of New Haven and a co-author of Framing Immigrants, a forthcoming book from Russell Sage.
Robert Granoth, who contributed to the editorial, is a senior political science major at the University of New Haven.
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