The Impact of Gary Johnson on the 2016 Presidential Election — Part I

In the face of a general election with the two most unpopular major party nominees in American electoral history, many people are giving serious thought to voting for third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. While Stein appears to be drawing most of her votes from the left, Johnson’s impact on the race has been more ambiguous.

Johnson’s Impact on the Clinton v. Trump Horserace

Many political pundits initially hypothesized that Johnson would take a disproportionate number of votes from Trump because his libertarian small government positions would appeal to Republicans. However, a look at the polls shows a more mixed situation. One way we can examine this is by looking at polls that have tested both a 2-way race and 3-way race. (The problem with comparing 2-way and 4-way polls is that the presence of Stein makes it harder to discern Johnson’s individual impact).

I analyzed every poll conducted after both conventions in the FiveThirtyEight updates section. I only included polls that either (1) tested both Clinton vs. Trump and Clinton vs. Johnson vs. Trump matchups or (2) have crosstabs showing how Johnson/Stein voters would vote if they had to choose between Clinton and Trump.

Overall, I found that Gary Johnson is drawing support equally from Clinton and Trump. My analysis suggests that if Johnson was not running for President, the net effect would be a minimal .015 point increase in Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead. (See spreadsheet link below for more details)

The FiveThirtyEight political website conducted an analysis to explore Johnson’s polling impact in early July, but their methodology had an obvious flaw. They compared 4-way polls vs. 2-way polls, which made it impossible to discern Johnson and Stein’s individual impacts on the race. My analysis supports the hypothesis that Stein draws support heavily from Clinton, while Johnson draws support about evenly, creating a net effect in favor of Trump when moving from a 2-way matchup to a 4-way matchup.

Does Johnson Have More Potential with Republicans or Democrats?

Although Johnson currently draws support evenly from both major-party candidates, the past does not necessarily predict the future. If he reaches the fall debates and surges in support, could he potentially draw disproportionately from one of the major party candidates?

I strongly suspect that Johnson’s ceiling is much higher with Republicans. A recent HuffPost/YouGov survey of registered voters found that only 35% of Republican-leaning voters thought Trump was the GOP’s best option while 54% felt that someone else would have been better. However, among Democratic-leaning voters, 53% thought Clinton was the Democrats’ best option while only 37% felt that someone else would have been better. Another Gallup poll found similar results- 46% of Republicans were satisfied with Trump while 52% wished someone else was the nominee. On the flipside, 56% of Democrats were satisfied with Clinton while 42% wished someone else was the nominee.

Ideologically, Johnson’s fiscal conservatism has significant appeal to small government conservatives who favor free trade, entitlement reform, and lower taxes. While there are elected Republicans who are socially moderate/liberal (i/e Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts), the overwhelming majority of Democrats identify as fiscally progressive.

Johnson’s Geographic Appeal

Overall, Johnson seems to be having the most success in smaller rural states in the Mountain West and Great Plains. FiveThirtyEight’s now-cast gives us estimated vote percentages for Clinton, Trump, and Johnson.

Here are Johnson’s top ten states right now:

  1. New Mexico (18.2%)
  2. Montana (17.1%)
  3. Alaska (17.0%)
  4. Utah (14.4%)
  5. Wyoming (13.9%)
  6. Colorado (13.6%)
  7. North Dakota (11.9%)
  8. Indiana (11.7%)
  9. Maine (11.7%)
  10. South Dakota (11.5%)

The following spreadsheet has the data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, sorted by Johnson support.

It is very rare that third party candidates win electoral votes thanks to our two-party system and first-past-the-post voting. In 1992, Independent candidate Ross Perot earned a very respectable 19% of the vote but failed to win a single state. The last time a non major-party candidate won electoral votes was in 1968, when racial segregationist George Wallace won five Deep South states for 46 electoral votes. He only won 13.5% of the national popular vote that year, but was able to win electoral votes because of his concentrated support in the Deep South.

In Part II I will explore Electoral College and House outcomes in more depth.

Johnson’s Path to Victory — It Starts with the Debates

First, Johnson must make it onto the presidential debate stage. Even he has admitted that if he doesn’t make it to the debate stage, it’s ‘game over.’ The Committee on Presidential Debates’ criteria to reach the debate stage is an average of 15% in five polls: ABC-Washington Post (7%), CBS-New York Times (10%), CNN-Opinion Research Corporation (9%), Fox News (12%) and NBC-Wall Street Journal (10%).

Averaging the most recent iteration of those five polls, Johnson is currently sitting at 9.6%. While the organizers have suggested that they may give an inch or two to a candidate who is close enough, Johnson is clearly still a few points away from making it.

While Johnson’s support has not been fading like many third party candidates do as the campaign progresses, he has not been rising either. It is clear that Johnson needs a game-changer to qualify for the debates.

While Trump or Clinton may make a major mistake in the next few weeks and hemorrhage support to the Libertarian nominee, Johnson’s best bet is to secure an influential endorsement from a major Republican. 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney has been rumored to be considering a Johnson endorsement. Romney’s support could galvanize #NeverTrump support for Johnson and bump him over 15%. Other potentially momentum-building endorsements could come from Jeb Bush, Maine Senator Susan Collins, or Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. It is unlikely that a major Republican with presidential ambitions for 2020 (i/e Kasich, Cruz) would be the first to endorse Johnson because of negative blowback from Republican primary voters if Johnson doesn’t win. However, they might end up backing Johnson later on if he becomes more viable.

Politically, Johnson is probably best off aiming for ex-Kasich supporters. FiveThirtyEight found that the most anti-Trump Republicans looked more like Kasich supporters (moderate and college-educated) than Cruz supporters (very conservative and highly religious). While many would assume that small government libertarianism would appeal more to backers of the very conservative Cruz, it may be the case that Cruz voters are closer to Trump than Clinton ideologically (since they are more conservative) while this may not necessarily be the case for moderate Kasich supporters who are turned off by Trump’s positions on immigration and foreign policy.

Johnson seems to already be following this strategy, stressing his definition of libertarianism as being ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal’ rather than the more radical small government libertarianism espoused by Ron and Rand Paul. His running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, endorsed Kasich in the primary and is known as more of a pragmatic moderate. This approach seems to be reflected in the polling, where Johnson is getting more support from self-identified moderates than self-identified conservatives.


In one of the craziest election years in American political history, the Johnson/Weld ticket sees one of their best chances yet to disrupt the two-party system and win the presidency. While their path is clearly uphill, there is definitely an opening with the help of a few lucky breaks. In Part II I will explore different electoral college situations and how the House of Representatives might decide the election. Stay tuned!