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Gary Johnson Isn’t Fading

Gary Johnson doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In recent elections, third-party candidates have tended to lose support as Election Day approaches. But the Libertarian Party presidential nominee and former New Mexico governor is holding steady in the polls, and we’ve reached a point in the race at which past third-party candidates had already started to see their support nose-dive.

Johnson is pulling in about 9 percent in the national polls, according to the FiveThirtyEight polls-only average. And his share in national polls has not fallen as we’ve gotten closer to the election. Indeed, Johnson’s support right now is higher than many other viable1 third-party candidates’ at a similar point in campaigns since 1948.

CAMPAIGN CANDIDATE LATE SUMMER POLLING AVG.* ELECTION RESULTS DIFFERENCE
1948 Henry Wallace 4% 2% -2
1948 Strom Thurmond 2 2 0
1968 George Wallace 17 14 -3
1980 John Anderson 14 7 -7
1992 Ross Perot 20 19 -1
1996 Ross Perot 8 8 0
2000 Ralph Nader 4 3 -1
2012 Gary Johnson 2 1 -1
2016 Gary Johnson 9
Average 9 7 -2
Third-party candidates hold onto most of their late August support

*Average of polls conducted in the seven days ending on Aug. 25 of each election year.

Sources: Roper Center, Gallup, FiveThirtyEight polling database

Johnson is pulling in at least twice as much of the vote as Henry Wallace or Strom Thurmond was in late August 1948, as Ralph Nader was in 2000 and certainly as Johnson himself was four years ago. Perhaps even more impressive is that Johnson is polling right about where Ross Perot was in 1996, when Perot had a nationally known name after his strong 1992 run. That said, Johnson is nowhere near the success of that 1992 campaign: Perot was pulling in 20 percent as a hypothetical candidate after leaving the 1992 campaign in July but before re-entering the race in October.

And notice: Most third-party candidates didn’t lose that much support between late summer and Election Day. Besides John Anderson in 1980, no candidate ended up finishing more than 3 percentage points below where they were polling in late August. The average drop-off is about 2 percentage points. Anderson, meanwhile, was already fading at this point in the campaign. In Gallup’s polling, for example, his support peaked at 24 percent in early summer and by now had dropped by 10 percentage points.

The FiveThirtyEight polls-plus model is adjusting to Johnson’s staying power: It discounts third-party candidates’ support based on their tendency to lose steam down the stretch, but it’s grown less skeptical of Johnson as his polling numbers have held up. Johnson was projected to finish with 6.5 percent of the vote in mid-July when he was polling slightly higher than he is today. Now, the model is projecting that Johnson will win 7.1 percent of the national vote on Election Day. That’s 2 percentage points less than where the national polls have him at this point, which is pretty much exactly what we’d we expect considering the average 2-point drop-off for past third-party candidates.

Why is Johnson’s support proving more durable than past third-party candidates’? The most obvious answer is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are extremely unpopular for major party presidential nominees; if third-party voters eventually settled on a major party nominee in past campaigns for fear of “wasting their vote,” they may be less willing to settle this year. (Of course, Johnson’s support may simply fade later than past third-party candidates.)

There is, however, some bad news for Johnson in his steady numbers: They’re not going up either. He’s showing no signs of reaching 15 percent in national polls, the threshold necessary to get into the debates. Still, if he ends up with 7 percent of the vote — as we’d expect based upon history and the current polls — the Libertarian Party will qualify for federal campaign funding in 2020, and Johnson will claim the highest share of the vote of any non-major party nominee in 20 years.

Footnotes

  1. I’m including third-party candidates who garnered a significant amount of media attention and were on the ballot in a substantial number of states.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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