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Could A Libertarian Win A Senate Race This Year?

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Poll of the week

You know when you go see a good popcorn movie and the fun sidekick character doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, but then they announce a sequel that puts that character front and center? In politics, that’s Gary Johnson. The former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico turned Libertarian presidential candidate got 3.3 percent of the popular vote in the 2016 election — more than 4 million votes — but it seemed like that would be the last we’d hear from him. But fortunately for Johnson superfans, that’s not how it worked out: After the Libertarian candidate in New Mexico’s U.S. Senate race dropped out last month, the New Mexico Libertarian Party drafted Johnson into the race.

The field was particularly inviting for Johnson because the GOP wasn’t taking this race that seriously. The only Republican on the primary ballot was Mick Rich, an Albuquerque contractor who had never run for office before. That, plus Johnson’s residual name recognition in the Land of Enchantment, has raised the possibility that Johnson, not Rich, could be the main threat to topple Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich this fall.

And so our poll of the week is an Emerson College survey released Monday suggesting exactly that. Heinrich led the poll, conducted Aug. 17-18 among 500 registered voters, with 39 percent, but Johnson came in second with 21 percent. Rich received 11 percent, and 30 percent were still undecided. Crucially, Emerson found that the secret to Johnson’s success was that he had surpassed Rich as the choice of both Republicans (Johnson led Rich 27-25 among GOP voters) and independents (Johnson led Rich 25-7 among independents, with Heinrich receiving 32 percent). Probably in order to counter this narrative, the next day Rich’s campaign released its own poll of the race that claimed Heinrich led Rich “only” 41 percent to 34 percent, with Johnson way back at 19 percent.

If Johnson were to pull off the unlikely win, he would be the first Libertarian in U.S. history to win a major statewide election. But even if the Rich poll’s pessimistic-for-Johnson view of the race is correct, that would still make Johnson one of the most successful Libertarian candidates in history. In top-of-the-ticket races1 since the party’s founding in 1971, Libertarians’ best performance at the ballot box has been Joe Miller’s 29 percent in the 2016 U.S. Senate race in Alaska. (Hat tip to Eric Ostermeier of Smart Politics for doing much of this research.)

The strongest Libertarian Party candidates in history

Libertarian candidates for president, Senate and governor who have exceeded 8 percent of the vote in any state

Candidate Office State Year Vote share
Joe Miller U.S. Senate Alaska 2016 29%
Michael Cloud U.S. Senate Mass. 2002 18
Dick Randolph Governor Alaska 1982 15
Steve Osborn U.S. Senate Ind. 2006 13
Carla Howell U.S. Senate Mass. 2000 12
Ed Clark President Alaska 1980 12
Ed Thompson Governor Wisc. 2002 10
Gary Johnson President N.M. 2016 9
Steven Rosile U.S. Senate Kan. 2002 9

Sources: Smart Politics, Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, Associated Press, Ballotpedia, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

There are certain states that seem particularly predisposed toward Libertarians: Alaska, with its isolation-driven libertarian streak, and Massachusetts, with its sympathy to third-party candidates broadly. New Mexico appears on the list, but only because of Johnson himself: It was his best state in 2016, but he’ll have to improve upon his 9 percent showing this time around if he wants to win his Senate race. On the positive side for him, it definitely looks like the Libertarian Party is gaining influence: The party’s candidates rarely cracked 8 percent in its first few decades of existence, but they’ve picked up steam in elections this century.

But finally, there’s a big caveat to this list: Three of the names are only on this list because one of the major parties sat out that race. Michael Cloud was able to get 18 percent of the vote in the Bay State’s 2002 U.S. Senate race against John Kerry, but Kerry had no Republican opponent, so Cloud was his main opposition. Steve Osborn and Steven Rosile, meanwhile, ran in elections where there was no Democratic nominee. That hints at the single biggest factor that could boost Johnson’s chances in New Mexico this year: if Rich drops out to consolidate the anti-Heinrich vote. So far, he has shown no inclination to do so.

Other polling nuggets

  • A Marist College poll of Texas found Democrat Beto O’Rourke only 4 percentage points behind incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. That’s one more in a series of polls this month that shows O’Rourke within single digits of Cruz in a state where Senate races in the past few decades have ended in double-digit margins of victory for Republicans. Still, Cruz is ahead in every poll of the race so far this year.
  • A Fox News poll found that 59 percent of respondents approve of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. That’s up from 48 percent in July and 55 percent in June. Republican approval of the investigation stayed steady at about 25 percent.
  • New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez led his Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, by 6 points, 43 to 37, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. About half of respondents (including 38 percent of Democrats) said they believe Menendez, who is running for re-election after his trial on corruption charges ended in a hung jury, was involved in serious wrongdoing.
  • A Wisconsin poll from Marquette University showed close races for governor and Senate. The poll found incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker running even with Democrat Tony Evers at 46 percent, and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin just 2 points ahead of Republican challenger Leah Vukmir, 49 percent to 47 percent.
  • While a Quinnipiac poll this month found that 9 percent of black voters approve of President Trump and a Gallup poll from last month found that 13 percent do, a recent Rasmussen Poll put Trump’s approval rating among African-Americans at 36 percent. While it is possible that Trump has made small gains among black voters since his election, it is highly unlikely that the true level of his support among black voters is anywhere close to a third given the number of more transparent and reputable polls that say otherwise.
  • Just over half of Americans said in a Monmouth poll this week that, all else being equal, they would be more likely to support a candidate for Congress who is a political outsider, compared to a quarter who said they would prefer a political insider.
  • 26 percent of white respondents said in a YouGov poll that they have used the N-word to refer to a black or African-American person while 66 said they have not. (Keep in mind: These numbers may be thrown off by the fact that some people likely don’t want to admit to a pollster that they’ve used that word.)
  • The Miss America organization announced in June that it is ending its swimsuit competition and replacing it with an interview segment. Sixty-seven percent of women said they either somewhat or strongly support the decision, but only 43 percent of men said the same, according to a Morning Consult poll.
  • 68 percent of Americans, including 68 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats, approved of cancelling this year’s planned military parade due to high costs, according to a YouGov poll.
  • Trust in media may be up, according to a study by the Poynter Institute that included polling by YouGov.
  • 45 percent of Americans said in a Monmouth University poll that they think the charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort suggest there may be widespread illegal activity among staff in the White House. That number, predictably, breaks down along partisan lines, with 19 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats saying that the charges suggest widespread illegal activity.
  • Morning Consult tested a variety of possible Democratic contenders for a 2020 run for president against Trump and found that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden topped the list of those who would fare the best.
  • Only 15 percent of Russians believe that their government tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to a Pew Research survey, while 71 percent believe it did not. The poll also found that 72 percent of Russians think their country plays a more important role in the world than it did 10 years ago, up from 59 percent who thought so last year.

Trump approval

Trump’s net approval rating currently sits at -10.9 points, according to our tracker. (That’s a 42.1 percent approval rating and a 53 percent disapproval rating.) One week ago, his net approval was -10.3 points; 42.1 percent approved of Trump’s job performance, and 52.4 percent disapproved. At this time last month, that net approval was -11.1 points — 41.8 percent approval, 52.9 percent disapproval. Plus ça change …

Generic ballot

Per our tracker of generic-ballot polls, Americans currently opt for the Democratic House candidate over the Republican by a 7.8-point margin (47.8 percent to 40 percent). One week ago, their lead was a similar 7.8 points (47.7 percent to 39.9 percent). At this time last month, our tracker sat at Democrats 48.1 percent, Republicans 40.6 percent, or a 7.5-point Democratic advantage. In other words, the national environment has been pretty steady too.

FiveThirtyEight House forecast update for August 23, 2018

Check out our 2018 House forecast and all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the midterms.

CORRECTION (Aug. 24, 2018, 1:50 p.m.): A previous version of the table in this article incorrectly listed the year Carla Howell ran for Senate in Massachusetts. It was 2000, not 2002.


  1. Those for president, U.S. Senate and governor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.