A Third-Party Spoiler?

I mentioned this in last night’s Ringside Seat—the Prospect’s daily e-mail on the 2012 campaign; read! subscribe!—but I want to dig a bit more into an unexpected result in a PPP national poll released yesterday. Way down in the poll’s crosstabs, Buzzfeed spotted the results of an Obama-Romney matchup if you include Gary Johnson as a third-party candidate. You may recall Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, from his brief stint as a GOP presidential candidate last year, culminating in one lone primetime debate performance in which he scored laughs for making a joke about dog excrement (sadly the political conversation hasn’t improved much since that time). Johnson was never granted entrance to another debate and ended his Republican run to declare his intention of running for the Libertarian Party’s nomination, a more natural home for his ideology.

He barely placed in Republican primary polls, but if included in the general-election field, he would siphon off 6 percent of the popular vote, according to PPP. In that scenario, Obama leads Romney 47–42—a wider margin for the incumbent than his 3-point advantage when Johnson is excluded. What to make of this? Has Ron Paul been right all along in predicting a rising tide of libertarian voters? Mark me down as a skeptic. In general, polls this far out from the election should be taken with a grain of salt. Most voters haven’t really tuned in and won’t for months to come. Beyond a handful of legitimate Johnson fans, I imagine the bulk of that 6 percent consists of voters who have paid scant attention to date, but have uneasy feelings about both Obama and Romney. When presented with a third generic option they’ll voice their dissent. And it’s hard to find a more generic middle-aged white guy name than Gary Johnson. For now he’s just a stand-in for their dissatisfaction with their options, one that will disappear once voters actually begin to tune in.

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