Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
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 races 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.)
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
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 …
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.
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.
Those for president, U.S. Senate and governor.