Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump openly frets that a serious third-party option this fall would likely hand the election to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
"Obviously, the independent or third party could not win, so the Democrats would have an absolutely free run," he declared in March, just as his campaign was catching fire. "Very simple. It guarantees – 100 percent guarantees the election of the Democrat. That means the appointment of Supreme Court judges, three, four or five. That's a total wipeout for conservatives and for Republicans. Start thinking about that."
However, even as former Republican governors Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts begin to gear up for a Libertarian Party presidential challenge, a new Quinnipiac University Poll suggests that a third-party bid might hurt Clinton as much or more than Trump.
According to the new national survey released Wednesday, Clinton leads Trump, 45 percent to 41 percent, in a hypothetical matchup among Democratic and Republican voters. But Clinton’s lead shrinks to just 40 percent to 38 percent – well within the poll’s margin of error – when the Libertarian and Green Party candidates are added to the mix.
Johnson, a former businessman who stressed concerns about the public debt and spending excesses during a previous Libertarian Party bid for president in 2012, garnered five percent of the national vote in the new Quinnipiac poll, while Jill Stein, the liberal Green Party nominee, picked up three percent.
In the breakdown of the poll, Johnson drew four percent of the Republican vote, two percent of the Democratic vote and 10 percent of independents. Stein, a physician and two-time candidate for governor of Massachusetts, drew one percent of the Republican vote, three percent of Democrats and 7 percent of more liberal-leaning independents.
With both Trump and Clinton saddled with unprecedented unfavorability ratings approaching 60 percent, third-party candidacies that usually are ignored by the public during presidential campaigns suddenly are getting attention.
Eighty percent of Americans surveyed by Quinnipiac said they had never heard of either Johnson or Stein, which highlights their challenge in drawing even modest support. But that could change.
Johnson and Weld are both skilled and experienced politicians who hope to attract a sizeable fraction of the anti-Trump movement among disaffected Republicans and independents who are looking for an alternative.
During the Libertarian Party convention in Orlando last weekend, Johnson described the billionaire businessman’s immigration policies as "just racist," especially Trump’s promise to deport 11 million undocumented people and to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Weld, who has enjoyed a long friendship with Hillary and Bill Clinton, stepped up the drum beat against Trump today during an interview on MSNBC. Weld said that Trump’s ideas for rounding up and deporting millions of illegal immigrants “reminds me of Ann Frank hiding in the attic” during World War II.
“It’s just not the tone I think is right for the United States,” Weld said. “Building a huge wall – that’s evocative of the most famous wall of the 20th Century -- the Berlin Wall – which is a badge of shame and a stain on the Soviet Union and helped to bring the end of the Cold War. I think Mr. Trump is on the wrong side of history in these issues.”
The Green Party, which played a pivotal role in helping to elect Republican George W. Bush over former Democratic vice president Al Gore in 2000, is going after Clinton and the Democrats as much as Trump.
In an interview this week with Salon, Stein described her campaign as “plan B” for Bernie Sanders and his supporters “after Bernie gets wiped out” by Clinton.
Stein said that the Democratic Party “talks the talk” of income equality, national health care and Wall Street reform, but in fact “it walks in exactly the opposite direction.”
Meanwhile, the “Never Trump” movement among Republican activists and intellectuals seeking to draft a credible challenger to the billionaire businessman appears to have come up short.
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who has been heading the effort, struck out in trying to recruit a big name like Mitt Romney or freshman Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), among others.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, Kristol tweeted a heads-up that an “impressive” candidate would soon emerge. But last night it was revealed that Kristol has in mind David French, a Tennessee lawyer who writes for National Review and who has never run for office.
As The Washington Post’s James Hohmann noted today, Kristol “keeps striking out because no ambitious elected official wants to become a spoiler, remembered in the history books as the guy who tipped the election to Hillary Clinton.” Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who led the Green Party effort in 2000, is still living down his role in Gore’s defeat.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said today that it is far too early to assess the impact this year of a third-party challenge.
“Maybe some dissatisfied Sanders liberals go to the Green Party, and some unhappy conservatives go to Bill Kristol's candidate,” he said in an email. “But probably not many, overall.”
Sabato said that the Libertarians “have the best chance to make an impact,” but they've never gotten as much as two percent of the general election vote dating back to the 1970s.
“I have a hard time imagining them getting even upper single digits,” he added. “Still, Nader's 2.7 percent in 2000 switched the Presidency from Gore to Bush. So you just never know, and you don't get a good idea of the final impact of the other candidates until late October.”