What If: Could Gary Johnson get hot and play the spoiler?

Posted September 09, 2016

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I encourage The Courant to follow the lead of The Richmond Times-Dispatch and endorse Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson for president. As The Wall Street Journal wryly noted, that means the candidacy of "neither" would meet the 15 percent threshold to secure a spot in the presidential debates. But the polls the Commission relies on for its 15 percent criteria don't actually ask the "serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States" - they ask some variation of "if the election were held today, who would you vote for". Johnson now averages 9.2 percent based on the most recent versions of the five approved polls. There was also an online portion, which consumed around 10 percent of the total of $92,789 the PAC spent on the ME ad buys.

Of the roughly dozen battleground states on the road to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, it's in Arizona where circumstances could align in just such a way that Johnson could play spoiler.

"Success in life is really dictated on how we deal with failure", Johnson said. "We have a natural base of support there". No one is really going to care if Johnson takes 10 percent of OH, all the votes go to someone else anyway.

Voters in 2012 may have abandoned their outside choices in favor of a major-party, non-spoiler candidate, but with this year's wildly unpopular major-party choices, it may be tougher for Clinton or Trump to get those third-party voters to budge.

There is a certain trouble with this view, of course. No Libertarian presidential candidate has ever captured more than 1 percent of the vote but Johnson is consistently polling between 7 percent and 12 percent nationally even as pollsters have begun screening for likely voters. That seems reasonable, right? The American people deserve to vote for the candidate they believe in, not the lesser of two evils.

The issue is one that arises each campaign cycle; one of my predecessors addressed it in 2008, and NPR's first ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, wrote about it in 2000, when Ron Elving, then NPR's senior Washington editor, noted, "The timing of third party coverage is an issue every four years'". By and large, they aren't attracting anyone to their ideals. We should not allow them to turn our public debates into a choreographed and carefully scripted farce that prevents honest discussion of the real issues our country faces. I remember watching Bill Maher get down on his knees and beg Ralph Nader not to run, because it would fracture the left.

And those third party candidates provide some insight into what on earth undecided voters are thinking.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein speaks with supporters in downtown Philadelphia during events at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) on July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Another 10 or so NPR stories this summer included references to a third party candidate, often when potential voters raised the names during interviews. If either reach 5 percent, they're eligible for public funding in the next election. Americans have not only a right to vote, but a right to know who we can vote for.

The only way to give these candidates a chance is a switch to a preferential ballot system, where voters get to rank candidates by preference.