Third-party candidates rarely have an impact on the outcome of a presidential election, yet in almost every political cycle, they're typically cast as "spoilers," and their supporters are chastised for "throwing away" their votes.
But in a year like 2016 — a year that is anything but typical and one in which both major party candidates are incredibly unpopular — could third-party candidates actually affect whether Arizona goes red or blue?
According to a new Washington Post poll, the answer is yes.
The poll, which was conducted through the online polling platform SurveyMonkey, found that Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein could capture enough votes on November 8 to sway the election, affecting whether the Democrats or Republicans get Arizona's 11 electoral college votes.
In the first part of the poll, Arizonans were asked to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and Clinton squeezed by with a slight victory, 46 to 45 percent, with 9 percent undecided. This is more or less consistent with other recent political polls in the state.
But then when pollsters included Johnson and Stein in the equation, the outcome changed. Johnson, who is seen by many conservatives as a far more palatable choice than Trump, captured 13 percent of the vote, while Stein, who is seen by some former Bernie Sanders supporters as the only progressive candidate left in the race, got 4 percent. Only 7 percent of voters in this scenario said they were undecided.
As for Clinton and Trump, though both dropped a few percentage points — to 37 percent and 39 percent, respectively — Trump came out ahead.
While both scenarios include a win that's within the margin of error, political experts tell New Times the real takeaway is that if Johnson — and to a lesser extent, Stein — actually capture even a modest fraction of the Arizona electorate, there's a realistic chance a third-party presence on the ballot will sway the election here.
"To the degree that third-party candidates can affect things, it would seem to me that the Johnson–[Bill] Weld ticket has the potential to impact voters here in Arizona — particularly in rural Arizona, where people typically are more libertarian and for less government," says Chuck Coughlin, president of the conservative political consulting group HighGround.
Historically, third-party candidates tend to do better in polls than at the ballot box, and Coughlin says he thinks Johnson could realistically capture between 3 percent and 5 percent of the vote. That might not sound like a lot, but elections are typically won at the margins, and three to five percentage points could be enough to tip the outcome one way or another.
"Most of [the third-party vote] would come from people who you would presume to be Trump supporters," Coughlin adds. "There may be some Sanders voters that will vote for the Green Party just as a protest vote, but I don't think that's going to be part of the Clinton base [the Democrats are] counting on."
Andy Barr, a local Democratic strategist and a consultant with Saguaro Strategies, agrees. "I think any third-party element in Arizona helps Clinton more than Trump," he says. "I don't think there are a lot of people who are excited about the Jill Stein alternative, because she's done a poor job expressing her party's platform. I imagine a lot of people voting for Stein are Bernie supporters, who, when faced with Clinton or the apocalypse, will vote for Clinton."
In a similar vein, Barr believes that while many Republicans tell pollsters they want to vote for a third-party candidate (Johnson) because they can't stomach the two main choices, when push comes to shove and they find themselves in the election booth staring at the ballot, most will end up voting for Trump.
Of course, there will be those who don't cave to Clinton or Trump, and of that group, Barr foresees a larger portion voting for Johnson, because the "never Trump" movement is stronger than the "never Clinton" movement in Arizona.
Additionally, Johnson and the Libertarian Party have a legitimacy and built-in base in Arizona that Stein and the Green Party lack. Winning elections "takes resources, knowhow, data, and a lot of bodies," Barr says, and while the Libertarian Party is certainly nowhere near as big and organized as the two major parties, it has a lot more political infrastructure than the Greens do here.
Libertarians also have a de facto high-level messenger, he points out. Right now in Arizona, there's no strong anti-Clinton voice, whereas on the Republican side, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake — who has recently engaged in a Twitter war with Trump — plays that role, he says.
"He's the most out-there, prominent, reasoned, and rational Republican on Trump. He is giving Republicans permission to not vote for Trump. I think the permission aspect of the argument is important," says Barr.
At the end of the day, Barr adds, "I think the third-party thing is a little overstated, but at the same time, we're operating on the margins, and the margins are going to win this race."
Barr and Coughlin both mention Ross Perot, the most recent third-party candidate to "spoil" an Arizona election. Perot captured nearly 8 percent of the vote in 1996, ostensibly helping Bill Clinton to defeat Bob Dole by 2.2 percentage points.
Stopping any threat Johnson poses falls on the shoulders of the Republican Party, Coughlin says. "It's the campaign's job to figure out how to stop that. It's their campaign to win or lose."
The same goes for Clinton and Stein, but Coughlin believes that any time and money Democrats invest in Arizona will be spent on first-time and swing voters, not on the small and unwavering Sanders cohort.
People love to talk about third parties, and they love to blame them for spoiling elections, he says, "but you rarely lose a race because of what someone else did."
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