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At the moment, he’s probably most often confused with that plumber who fixed your running toilet last month or your spouse’s weird friend from work who keeps calling the landline, but he’s neither — he’s the former governor of New Mexico, likely Libertarian candidate for president, and he’s polling at 10 percent in two recently released national polls against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
A Morning Consult survey published Tuesday and found Clinton getting 38 percent of the vote, Trump 35 and Johnson 10, with 17 percent undecided. A Fox News poll conducted from May 14-17 showed Trump leading over Clinton, 42 percent to 39 percent, but Johnson at 10 percent as well. Lest you think this is some fluky May development, a Monmouth University survey conducted in mid-March — while the political universe was still busy wringing its hands over the Republican nomination — found that in a three-way race, Clinton would get 42 percent, Trump 34 percent and Johnson 11 percent.
Given that Trump and Clinton are sporting historically high negative ratings, Johnson’s polling makes a fair bit of sense; Gary Johnson is neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton. He might not win a state, but he could make some noise.
Of course, it’s still early, right? Yes, of course. It’s May, and there are six more months for your hair to gray and for your friends to wither down to just your pet after innumerable ill-advised political conversations over drinks, but Johnson’s polling numbers are nothing to sneeze at, if history may be our guide.
In early May 1968, George Wallace, whose candidacy as a third-party candidate running on what can politely be called an anti-civil rights message has been much-talked about this year, got 14 percent in a Harris Survey as well as in a Gallup poll; he eventually won nearly 14 percent of the national vote.
The most serious third-party candidate in recent memory was Ross Perot, who third-wheeled his way onto the political stage in 1992 and 1996, eventually taking 19 percent and 8 percent of the national vote in those respective years. In May of 1992, Perot, a former businessman, was polling gangbusters; a Gallup poll found him at 35 percent and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey had him at 30 percent. Perot entered the race in February of that year, a few weeks after the county was initiated to the first of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, and in the midst of a tough economy for President George H.W. Bush — plenty of voters were looking for other options. Four years later, he was still polling well for a third-party candidate, but not nearly at his 1992 levels: May polls (not to be confused with maypoles) had Perot at 17 percent (ABC/Washington Post), 12 percent (NBC/Wall Street Journal), and 10 percent (Gallup1).
But that was the ‘90s, back before most of us in the interior of the country had ever even seen an avocado let alone mashed it up on toast. How have third-party candidates polled recently? Johnson ran as the Libertarian candidate in 2012, and won about 1 percent of the national vote, becoming the most successful Libertarian candidate ever; in polls done in May and June of 2012, he was polling at 2 percent. Bob Barr, the Libertarian nominee in 2008, also polled at 2 percent in the late spring of that year.
It must be noted that Johnson is not yet the Libertarian nominee. The party will be holding its nominating convention this weekend in Orlando, where he will face Austin Petersen, a young party operative, as well as former fugitive millionaire businessman John McAfee, who was once called“extremely paranoid, even bonkers” by the prime minister of Belize.
Given that this is 2016, no result should be ruled out.
Harry Enten contributed research.
Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight. @claremalone
ED: About 1,000 delegates are expected to gather in Orlando this weekend as the Libertarians hold their convention.