An Aug. 25 poll conducted by Rassmussen Reports showed President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney even at 48 percent nationally. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson sat at one percent and three percent of voters remained undecided.
This particular poll was the first by Rassmussen to include Johnson, the former two-term New Mexico governor, and came on the heels of a JZ Analystics/Washington Times poll that showed him polling at 5.3 percent nationally.
Third party inclusion in polling has been rare this election season. Major polling outlets have excluded Johnson and other third party candidates such as Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. Instead, polls from CNN, Gallup, ABC News and others feature the options ‘neither,’ ‘other’ and/or ‘no opinion.’
Charles Franklin, professor of law and public policy at Marquette University, said he believes including multiple candidates would create a less reliable poll, which is why it is rarely done.
“It’s fairly obvious that if you’re expecting less than two people (to vote third party) out of 700 you’re not going to get a reliable poll,” Franklin said.
The Marquette University law poll, which Franklin helps conduct, is another poll that does not list third party candidates to respondents, though Franklin has not written it off as a possibility.
“It’s not inconceivable that we would ask about a third party candidate,” Franklin said. “The issue is again that we would ask is this a candidate that is running a significant campaign or not.”
Of the third party hopefuls, Johnson is the only one to appear in a major poll (Rassmussen), though historically that may not be the standard of significance Franklin alluded to.
George Wallace of the America Independent Party is the last third party candidate to win states in the Electoral College, grabbing five in 1968. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot gained 19 percent of the popular vote, but no electoral votes in the general election and polled in the double digits up until that point. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader gained almost three million votes, putting him at 2.74 percent nationally and playing spoiler for Democratic nominee Al Gore in some swing states.
Though Johnson is registering at just one percent nationally, and others have yet to even find their name on a poll, Franklin has not ruled out the possibility of a spoiler existing in 2012. He said, however, that judging by the state’s history, Wisconsin does not appear to be one of those states.
Franklin pointed out that 2008 Libertarian candidate Bob Barr only received 0.3 percent of the vote in the state four years ago and that Obama’s margin of victory in Wisconsin (about 400,000) would not have been greatly diminished if every person who voted for a third party candidate (about 43,000 voters) voted for Republican John McCain.
Part of what is holding third parties back, according to Franklin, is the fact that the electoral system in the United States is that of ‘single member districts,’ as opposed to ‘proportional representation’ in many European countries and elsewhere around the world.
Single member districts feature one winner elected to a legislature, whereas proportional representation means that a party will be represented in their legislature by the same percentage they were supported in the election by the voters, win or lose.
Franklin said this allows for multiple parties to spring up all the time, as opposed to in the U.S. where third parties are faced with a disadvantage in single member districts. He pointed out the Libertarian Party, which is featured on most ballots but has yet to elect anyone to congress.
“This has been the dilemma of the Libertarian Party for decades now,” Franklin said. “The Libertarians since the 70’s have been the most widely available third party option across the country. They’re certainly not on every ballot, but if you go through and add up national election returns, Libertarians are always the most widely available third party.”
“But they struggle to get one or two percent of the vote. In some states where they are strong they get five percent,” he continued. “In all these years they have yet to get someone to the House. But that’s the dilemma. If we had proportional representation like Israel and the Netherlands you would expect the Libertarians to get three to five percent of the house. But single member districts make that very, very difficult for any third party.”
Still, acknowledging political history, in particular the downfall of the Whig Party and rise of the Republican Party in the 1850’s, Franklin sees ways forward for third parties who are stacked against the odds.
“I think the history of the 1800’s showed that third parties certainly can emerge if they find an issue that motivates voters sufficiently,” Franklin said.
There are no current plans to include a third party in the law school poll, though Franklin said if there is someone ‘actively campaigning in the state, advertising in the state and rising elsewhere’ it may lead to their inclusion.