Voters now confronted with the choice between Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE and Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE are making something abundantly clear: They want another option.
Surveys over the last six weeks have found a steady but noticeable jump in support for third-party candidates. The biggest beneficiary has been Libertarian nominee Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonBiden broadened Democratic base, cut into Trump coalition: study New Mexico lawmakers send recreational marijuana bills to governor Judge throws out murder convictions, releases men jailed for 24 years MORE, who has shot up from 4.5 percent to 7.2 percent in RealClearPolitics polling averages. Green Party candidate Jill Stein has also seen an uptick since June — from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent.
The surge in support for a third-party candidate is adding a new element of unpredictability into the presidential race. Should voters opt for a third-party candidate in large numbers, it could potentially tip the scales in crucial battleground states.
Pollsters and political scientists say the deep malcontent with Clinton and Trump should give both candidates pause.
“The fact that we have two major party candidates who are enormously disliked by the electorate, enormously and equally disliked, creates the opportunity for the minor party candidates to do better than they would in other presidential elections,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.
“The minor party candidates can have great influence if the final race is very close.”
Pollsters contacted by The Hill predicted that many of the voters now leaning toward a third-party candidate would eventually side with Trump or Clinton by Election Day.
But they caution that the volatility of the race and the low favorability ratings for both candidates mean anything is possible.
So far, it’s unclear whether Trump or Clinton will benefit most from a strong third-party vote.
There are voters in each party who feel spurned by their party's ticket — Republicans who refuse to side with Trump, and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE supporters who feel their candidate did not get a fair shake in the Democratic primary.
Conventional wisdom has held that votes for the Libertarian ticket would hurt Republicans, while Green Party votes would do damage to the Democrats.
That dynamic is borne out by recent polling. A CNN survey released last week found that 17 percent of Republican voters who didn’t back Trump in the primary now support Johnson, while only 4 percent of Democrats disgruntled with Clinton support him. Stein, meanwhile, took 6 percent support among voters who backed Sanders in the Democratic primaries.
Monmouth’s poll from the start of the Republican National Convention also found Johnson pulling more from conservative voters than from liberals, while the reverse held true for Stein.
But the numbers are far from cut-and-dry. Quinnipiac’s recent batch of swing state polls found that Trump’s standing in the race against Clinton improved slightly when all four candidates were included.
Patrick Murray, the Monmouth University pollster who was the first to put Johnson on a national poll, said that he doesn’t think voters are viewing third-party support as an ideological choice.
Johnson has received significantly more media coverage than Stein, last week taking to cable news to tout the potential endorsement of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Murray and other pollsters believe that he may be seen as the de facto third-party candidate for those looking to lodge a protest vote.
“For those who really feel they cannot vote for either of the two major party nominees, Johnson is nominally the most visible alternative,” Murray said.
“So people are just traveling there without thinking of ideology.”
Even with the uptick in the polls, most experts believe Johnson won't make the debate stage. He’d have to significantly up his average to 15 percent to qualify for the first general election debate in September.
But even if he falls short, third-party candidates have roiled election results winning far less of the vote share.
Ralph Nader’s “2.5 percent in Florida was almost certainly the deciding factor” in the 2000 general election, Murray noted.
“This is why the national polling isn’t all that important anyways. It’s state by state: How close are these states, what are these candidates doing, and are they polling disproportionately in the state?”
Johnson and Stein will likely perform better in some heavily partisan states where voters don’t feel that their vote will actually matter, but Johnson specifically is showing traction in some closer ones.
Utah is fertile ground for Johnson right now, as an internal poll from Republican Rep. Mia Love’s campaign found him just 3 points behind Trump and 1 point behind Clinton, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
And Johnson has scored in the high single digits in polls of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania while netting 10 percent in New Hampshire, according to recent Quinnipiac figures. And out of the swing states in the 2012 election where the final margin was within 7 percentage points, Johnson is pulling 4 percent in the Monmouth surveys.
That won’t be enough support to win the election, but it could be enough to tilt the scales.
As the race enters the home stretch, pollsters will be watching closely to see whether the third-party vote holds.
“The question is, can they bring themselves to vote for a campaign only for the purposes of protesting the ticket?” Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist.
“You are going to look at their platforms and you’ll say, ‘This doesn’t match me at all. Can I bring myself to do this simply out of spite?’”