Gary Johnson is down in polls against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and the quickly approaching Election Day gives the Libertarian Party candidate little time to put together a historic upset, but there are still some good signs for Johnson — the potential that national polling is significantly underestimating the support he has.
The 2016 presidential polls point toward what will be a giant blowout, with Hillary Clinton pulling into a near double-digit lead over Trump that includes leads in many traditionally red states. But when it comes to Johnson and other third party candidates, there is evidence that polling is having a difficult time tapping into their growing support.
This has been a much trickier year for polling, as some of the professional pollsters have noted. Their models are based on something of a very educated guess about which voters will actually show up to the polls on Election Day, and some have already expressed doubt that they’re getting it right this year.
“These methods, which have been around for so long, may be losing some of their accuracy because circumstances have changed,” Scott Keeter, a senior survey adviser at Pew Research, told the Atlantic. “Whether there has been a change in our politics in just the last two years that makes all of this less accurate is really impossible to answer at this point.”
Those models are skewed heavily against young and first-time voters, but that’s an area where Johnson has polled particularly well. Polls have consistently shown that Gary Johnson is the top pick of young voters, including a Quinnipiac poll that showed Johnson was essentially tied with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump among voters under age 35.
Gary Johnson could also benefit from an election year that is bucking historic trends. In most years, October is a time when polls tighten and third-party candidates lose support as voters head back to the major candidates. But this year, Donald Trump’s implosion that began with the first presidential debate has turned the race into a blowout, with Clinton potentially locking down more than 270 electoral votes and the outcome seemingly set in stone unless some major and unexpected event changes it.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, the fact that many polls ask only about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may be skewing the results as well. While two-way polling has actually been the most accurate in recent years — polls that include third parties have actually overstated the support for these candidates — this year the opposite may be true, the report noted.
“Polls show third parties doing unusually well in this cycle, with Gary Johnson at seven percent nationally. In normal years, third-party candidates underperform their polling numbers on Election Day, especially the early numbers. This leaves pollsters (and forecasts based on surveys) with a dilemma. If they include Johnson (and the Green Party’s Jill Stein and independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin) in their survey, they probably overestimate votes for third-party candidates. Asking only about Clinton and Donald Trump will underestimate third-party voting.”
There are other good signs for Gary Johnson seen in the poll numbers of a different third-party candidate. Independent candidate Evan McMullin, who just got on the ballot in a number of states in August, has seen a surge in his native Utah and now leads in a series of polls.
While that situation is likely unique — McMullin is a well-respected Republican insider and a Mormon in a state filled with conservative Mormon voters who happen to really dislike Trump — it shows that there is an undercurrent against the major candidates that could make it a good year for third-party candidates nationwide.
The next few weeks will likely show whether Gary Johnson can continue to climb in the polls. If the margin between Clinton and Trump continues to widen, it could help more third-party voters feel confident in voting their first choice. And if Trump continues to suffer through public stumbles, it could peel off more conservative voters that opt for the Libertarian Party instead.
[Featured Image by Scott Morgan]