Researcher: Voters want third-party candidates on debate stage

Libertarian Gary Johnson did not reach the 15% threshold for inclusion in presidential debates in the latest Suffolk University/USA TODAY national poll. This is a disappointment to voters, 76% of whom believe that third-party candidates like Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein should be able to share the stage with Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump this fall.

The large majority of voters said that a third-party candidate who is certified on a majority of state ballots should be included in the national political conversation, 17% said they should not be included in the debates, and 7% were undecided. It’s clear that the voting public would like to welcome — with open arms — serious third-party candidates. Johnson claims he’ll be on all 50 state ballots, and it appears Stein will be on more than 80% when all of the legal challenges and appeals have concluded.

For the record, the poll showed that, in a four-way presidential ballot test that included Johnson and Stein, Clinton (42%) led Trump (35%), with Johnson receiving 9%, Stein 4% and 10% undecided. That 9% was a credible finding for Johnson but far below the 15% threshold he must show to get by the national TV debate gatekeepers.

Although he trails the front-runners in nearly every category, Johnson did break into the double-digit column in some demographics. Among men, he’s polling at 13%, and he is favored by 12% of voters in Western states, perhaps not surprising given that his home state is New Mexico. Fourteen percent of those who feel the U.S. economy is in stagnation prefer Johnson. Among voters ages 18-34 he polls at 18%, and he polls at 19%, well above the 15% threshold, among independents.

Johnson leads the other three presidential candidates among a key group I’ll call the “haters.” This sector — about 16% of general election likely voters — has an unfavorable opinion of both Clinton and Trump. Among “the haters,” Johnson led with 34% over Trump (21%), Clinton (15%) and Stein (8%), with 20% undecided. As the Trump and Clinton campaigns aim to drive one another’s negative ratings higher over the next nine weeks, Johnson and Stein could benefit further from the negative fallout.

But Johnson’s 9% national showing is considerably higher than his figures in many of the battleground states, where he has been foundering in the mid-single-digits. In the past six weeks, Suffolk University has polled likely voters in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Michigan — and Johnson has not polled above 5.8% or Stein above 3% in any of them. Johnson’s numbers are far below his national figure of 9% and miles away from the magic 15% he needs to ascend the stage for the big show.

Nationally, there is a voter appetite this year for something not found in the major parties. This makes sense given that both Clinton and Trump have extraordinary high unfavorable ratings (Trump 59% and Clinton 51%). Neither Clinton nor Trump are seen as trustworthy and honest, according to the poll, (Trump 61% untrustworthy and Clinton 59% untrustworthy). A clear majority (54%) think Hillary and Bill Clinton didn’t take appropriate steps to avoid conflict of interest in donations to the Clinton Foundation, while 78% think Trump should release his tax returns.

Because of this distaste for Clinton and Trump, the voting public is clamoring for serious third-party candidates to be part of the nationally televised debates. But as it stands, they won’t and therefore Stein and Johnson’s poll numbers will stay low or dissipate.

The lack of even adequate or equal press coverage already has hurt both Johnson and Stein. Who can recall the most memorable moment from the Libertarian and Green Party conventions? Can you even name the Green Party’s VP nominee?

Stein and Johnson are adopting a recent Trump line: “What do you have to lose?" If voters, after seeing the third-party candidates debate, consider them a distraction, an annoyance, as not qualified, not fit, not trustworthy, or a combination thereof, they can go back to square one with Clinton and Trump. At the very least, more inclusive debates would provide added content for Saturday Night Live. But if voters were to see something else in those debates, they might choose to check an alternative box at the polls on Nov. 8.

David Paleologos is director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston.


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