What went wrong for Gary Johnson?

asks the headline in Harry Enten’s latest analysis.  My answer– nothing.  Lacking a strong, positive appeal of their own (i.e., Wallace, Perot), third party candidates inevitably fade as election day nears.  Johnson is totally in keeping with this trend.  Enten:

This was supposed to be the year the Libertarian Party went mainstream. Given the two historically unpopular major party candidates and with aformer governor, Gary Johnson, as their nominee, things were looking good for the Libertarians. Johnson made it onto the ballot in all 50 states. He was regularly polling in the low double digits, and his support held up after the Democratic and Republican parties’ conventions — past the point when most third-party candidates begin to fade.

Things, however, have taken a turn for the worse for Johnson. His numbers are dropping — from about 9 percent in national polls in August to 6 percent now — and he’s been overshadowed by another (and previously even more obscure) third-party candidate…

Another plausible explanation is that Johnson was simply a “protest” choice. Perhaps many voters who said they were going to vote for him weren’t really interested in Johnson specifically but were merely voicing frustration with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton instead. There’s evidence for this. In August, when Johnson was flying high, a majority of voters had no opinion of him. In addition, many younger voters who as a group voted heavily for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary said they were going to vote for Johnson, even though Johnson and Sanders have very different ideologies. That seemed at least a little unsustainable. Indeed, as the campaign has taken shape and Sanders stumps for Clinton, Johnson’s numbers seem to be falling with young voters as Clinton’s rise.

In a historical sense, Johnson will still do quite well for a largely-unknown, poorly-funded, third party candidate.  Enten’s model (and my intuition) still think he’ll get over 5%.  One thing we know clearly about third party presidential voting is that it is, in significant degree, a sign of dissatisfaction with major party candidates.  And that likely gets us well above the 1-2% we commonly see.  But to really go well beyond the 5-6% Johnson will probably get, there’s got to be some real love for Gary Johnson, the actual candidate, not Johnson, the “not Trump or Clinton.”  And he’s not getting that and “Aleppo” moments and not being able to name a single admirable foreign leader surely don’t help.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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