Most voters don’t want to “waste” their vote on a candidate who can’t win. But in states where races aren’t competitive, voters sometimes back a third-party candidate for that very reason: They don’t want that politician to be president, but they want to register a protest against the major parties. In 1992, Stone’s mother was one of them. “Can you guarantee that Ross Perot will lose?” he recalled her asking him during that race. “Because if you can, I’m going to vote for him.” Perot won 20.6 percent of the vote in California in 1992, losing to Bill Clinton by 26 points.
The nominations of two of the most unpopular major-party candidates in modern history have given Gary Johnson, the Libertarian, and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, opportunities to significantly broaden their support compared to their respective 2012 bids and, potentially, win more votes than any third-party hopeful in the last 20 years. Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico, has reached double-digit support in some polls and can earn a spot in the fall debates if he can reach 15 percent by September.
But history suggests Johnson’s support is likely to drop as the election draws closer. “Most voters are drawn back to their home bases over the course of an election, and that’s doubly true of an election where the parties and the candidates are so polarized,” Stone said.
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, noted the example of John Anderson, the former Illinois congressman who ran as an Independent in 1980. By late in the summer, Anderson had reached 15 percent in the polls and made it into a fall debate with Ronald Reagan (which President Jimmy Carter refused to join). “You had a lot of voters in 1980 who were unhappy with Carter but who had reservations about Reagan, and so I think initially Anderson was getting a lot of votes from those folks,” Abramowitz said. But by Election Day, support for him had slipped, and he ended up with just 6.6 percent of the vote nationwide.
A few states have proven more fertile for long-shot candidates than the rest. Perot finished second in Maine in 1992, earning 30 percent of the vote to slip past President George H.W. Bush (despite the president owning a summer home in Kennebunkport). Nader scored higher in Maine than he did in most other states in both 2000 and 2008. Utah is similar: Perot also finished second there in 1992, and polling has found strong support in the state this year for Gary Johnson.
Both Stone and Abramowitz cited research showing that third-party candidates do worse when voters see a big difference between the major-party nominees. That bodes poorly for Johnson and Stein as the 2016 presidential campaign nears its final stretch. “They’re both pretty unpopular, but most voters do have a pretty strong preference for one over the other,” Abramowitz said. “There aren’t that many voters that equally dislike Clinton and Trump.”