Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Trump and Clinton give Libertarians an opportunity. Can they seize it?

One of the loudest #NeverTrump voices in the conservative media caused a bit of a stir this weekend with this tweet:

I guess the dream never really dies. While I'd be happy to have an independent candidate as an alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton , I will be surprised if one actually emerges -- and as I've said before , I don't think such a candidacy would actually help the down-ballot Republicans often cited as the reason for providing such a choice.

All that said, we know there will be at least a third candidate on ballots this fall: the Libertarian candidate. And that party chose its nominee this weekend , deciding once again to back former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who was also the 2012 nominee.

Johnson will be the only contender besides Clinton and Trump to appear on all 50 ballots, so his candidacy will attract a lot of media attention. We have seen that disproportionate media coverage can boost an unlikely candidate, but exactly how far can we expect Johnson, who got 0.99 percent of the national popular vote four years ago, to go?

A Fox News poll last week showed Johnson pulling 10 percent of the vote against the two major-party candidates, which would be a staggering total in November. The last time a third-party candidate reached that level was 24 years ago: Ross Perot in 1992 . Before that, it hadn't happened in ... 24 years, when George Wallace did it in 1968 . (Lest you think this happens every quarter-century or so, the last person to do it before Wallace was Robert La Follette, way back in 1924 .) Of course, even smaller shares of the vote can have an effect on the outcome; just ask President Gore about his buddy, Ralph Nader.

The polls definitely show there's some wiggle room in the electorate. The current Real Clear Politics average of national polls show the Trump-plus-Clinton vote totaling 86.6 percentage points; going back a bit further, to all polls conducted in the past two months, the average is 86.9 points. That's significantly lower than in 2012 , when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney combined for an average of 91.1 points in April-May polls. Obama was an incumbent then, but the picture wasn't much different in 2008 : Obama and John McCain totaled 90.6 points during the same two months. So there's about 4 more points of indecisiveness this time around.

Now for the bad news for third-party hopefuls: The real exposure Johnson needs would come in the fall debates, and the Commission on Presidential Debates has already set a standard of 15 percent in national polls for a candidate to be included in those events. Even if Johnson is the only third-party candidate in the race, he would have to start taking away large chunks of Trump's and Clinton's support to hit that number. If another independent candidate were to enter the race, per Kristol's statement, I think it'd be nearly impossible for someone besides Clinton and Trump to make the debate stage.

That said, with Trump and Clinton both as big-government foils, Johnson should have ample opportunities to talk about an approach that limits the federal government rather than simply wielding its power to different ends. It may not affect the electoral count, but it'll be nice to have one candidate in the race talking that way.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.