Unaffiliateds not expected to flock to third party candidates

Published September 29, 2016

by Dan Way, Carolina Journal, September 28, 2016.

Third party presidential candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are reaping history-making poll numbers. But those thinking this could be a watershed year for alternative candidates because so many voters are disaffected by Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are likely to be disappointed, one national pollster says.

“You do see a much higher level of support for third party candidates than you usually would,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, a firm with Democratic clients that surveys voters in-state and nationally.

Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, and Stein, the Green Party nominee, combined for around 3 percent of the presidential vote nationally when they ran on those tickets in 2012, Jensen said. This year their combined support among voters responding to national polls has risen to as much as the 12- to 13-percent range, about four- to five-times higher than in 2012, he said.

That trend is “super fascinating, and we never see this,” Jensen said. From July to late August national polls showed a rise of 4 points in both the number of undecided voters and the number of voters who said they would cast ballots for a third party candidate, while Clinton and Trump both dropped 4 points in the polls.

The “overwhelming historical trend” is that the closer an election draws near, the fewer undecideds there are, and which tends to reduce support for third party candidates. The support for the major party candidates is supposed to surge down the stretch, according to conventional wisdom and experience, Jensen said. “This year we have the opposite of that happening.”

However, Jensen still thinks polling precedents will hold as the final days until the Nov. 8 general election draw near.

“My sense is that Jill Stein will end up getting 1 percent, and Gary Johnson will end up getting 3 to 4 percent” in North Carolina and nationally, Jensen said. Already indications are showing that third party support began to diminish in September, he said.

Jensen was among a group of panelists discussing this most unusual election cycle on Sept. 23 during a North Carolina Technology Association event at the headquarters of Research Triangle Park Foundation.

Viewing trend lines in polling and the volatility that has Trump leading one week and Clinton leading the next, Jensen said there are “a couple of unusual dynamics going on this year. One is that voters dislike the candidates so strongly.”

Voters “change their minds about who’s the lesser of two evils based on what’s going on in a particular news cycle,” Jensen said of the “two deeply unpopular candidates.”

In 2012 both Republican nominee Mitt Romney and Democrat incumbent Barack Obama hovered around 45 percent favorability and 55 percent unfavorability, Jensen said.

“That looks like positively we were in love with them by comparison to where we are now,” he said, when favorability for both Clinton and Trump is lingering at about 35-40 percent.

Chris Sinclair, a partner with the campaign consulting firm Cornerstone Solutions who has worked on Republican campaigns, said North Carolina remains a battleground state.

“We’re not a red state, we are not a blue state. We are a purple state,” said Sinclair who was on the election discussion panel with Jensen. “We are a swing state. We swing a lot in North Carolina, and this election we should swing again.”

He predicts voting will be close in all 50 states in the presidential race. “We’re going to be up until 3 a.m., I believe, figuring out who won a lot of these races” up and down the ballot in North Carolina.

Unaffiliated voters are “the fastest growing segment of our electorate,” representing 1.98 million voters, almost as many as the 2.03 million registered Republicans, and have been the deciding factor in the last few elections, Sinclair said. There are 2.68 million registered Democrats.

“No doubt about it, the unaffiliated voter is going to continue to play a significant role” in elections, especially between Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, he said.

One trend being detected, Sinclair said, is that in some areas unaffiliated voters “love what has happened with our balance sheet at the state level … so fiscally they’re more right of center, socially they’re more leftist.” Jensen said polling shows there are even some Trump-Cooper voters among the electorate.

Polling also shows that in some North Carolina legislative districts Trump has the lead, and in a neighboring district Clinton is up.

“It’s week to week,” Sinclair said. “We’re starting to see some of those unaffiliated voters sort of break back to Republicans in suburban areas, particularly in those horseshoe counties around Wake and Mecklenburg.”

Sinclair said “soft Republicans who were not likely engaged before are starting to come back home to Republicans up and down the ticket.”

About 10 or 15 percent of voters still are uncertain who they will vote for, and at this point in the election cycle that should be closer to 5 points, Jensen said.

“What we’re finding about the undecideds … is pretty interesting” both in North Carolina and elsewhere, Jensen said.

His polling firm asks undecided respondents on all polls whether they would rather have four more years of President Obama or a Donald Trump presidency. The polls are “consistently finding” that set of voters prefers four more years of Obama by a 50- to 60-point margin, Jensen said. Yet Clinton’s favorability among that same group is a dismal 10 percent, with an 80 percent unfavorable rate.

“They just do not like Clinton,” he said. They may stay home and not vote on election day, or vote for Johnson or Stein.

While the polls are fluctuating between Trump and Clinton, “We’re not seeing a lot of people going back and forth between Clinton and Trump” as their preferred candidate, Jensen said. Rather, they vacillate between one specific candidate and undecided, or a third party candidate, he said.