Perhaps some of those who believed America was headed toward a “libertarian moment” are surprised by the steady decline of Gary Johnson’s support, or blame his gaffes and general demeanor of a distracted stoner for ruining a huge opportunity. But minor-party candidacies usually lose ground the closer one gets to an election, especially a relatively competitive two-party election where a “protest vote” seems unwise.
The fade itself is hard to doubt. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages, the Johnson-Weld ticket peaked at 9.2 percent on September 13. Now they are at 5.6 percent. Given the current trajectory, and the intensification of major-party campaigning, it appears likely Johnson will wind up with less than half of his peak support. It is also possible, though not likely, that Clinton will blow out to so large a lead in the last week or so that “wasted vote” fears will abate and the libertarians will stabilize or even re-grow their vote.
Truth is, a lot of the people who registered support for Gary Johnson back when he was flirting with double digits in the polls did not know much about him or the hoary cause of libertarianism. So one way to look at his supporters (and Jill Stein’s much smaller following) is as a subset of undecided voters. They, too, seem to be fading as Election Day approaches.
Nate Silver has a nifty state-by-state table showing levels of combined undecided and minor-party support:
The fewest undecideds are in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Nevada. And that makes sense. These are states where both parties have their bases, with voters split heavily along racial, religious and educational lines. In these states, it’s mostly a competition to see whose base is a little larger and who can turn out more of their voters. Coincidentally or not, these states also have a lot of early voting, except for Pennsylvania. So you’re seeing a lot of campaign activity in most of these states, especially in Florida, North Carolina and Nevada.
Utah is sui generis, because a favorite son, Evan McMullin, has put together a competitive independent candidacy with special appeal to this intensely conservative but intensely anti-Trump state. Elsewhere, the minor-party and undecided vote is highest in electoral backwaters, though some places, like Alaska, have a significant tradition of libertarian voting. But there are exceptions:
Among the more traditional swing states, Maine, Michigan, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire have more undecided voters than the others. You might notice that they have something in common: a lot of white voters, and particularly a lot of middle-class whites, which is one group that’s still relatively torn between the candidates.
These states are important because if there’s some sort of last-minute surge back toward Trump, he has more opportunity to make up ground in these states than in places like Pennsylvania, where more of the vote is locked in.
Again, levels of minor-party and undecided voters are mainly a function of the major-party competition rather than anything in particular to do with ideology or the campaign chops (or lack thereof) of Johnson or Stein.
So cut Johnson some slack, libertarians. If anything, Trump’s conquest of the GOP shows that a message based on cultural conservatism and economic collectivism (in the sense of an all-powerful president “solving” economic problems by battling with other governments over trade, currency, and immigration policies) is a lot stronger than the old social liberal–fiscal conservative combination the libertarians offer. In the end, Johnson will at least double or triple his showing of four years ago, when he won less than one percent of the vote. Beyond that, there’s always future hope for libertarianism each time an adolescent picks up a copy of Atlas Shrugged.