Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s visit to Maine this Friday isn’t surprising, given the state’s history and the current political moment. Third-party and independent candidates up and down the ballot have often received significant support in Maine, and the particular dynamics of the 2016 race may lead to an electoral boost for third-party presidential candidates.
FiveThirtyEight notes that Maine is one of two states with the strongest history of support for “third-party types.” Mainers cast the highest percentage of votes for Ross Perot for president of any state in both 1992 and 1996, independent Angus King has been elected both governor and senator, and many other independent and third-party candidates have carved out big chunks of the electorate. In 2010, independent candidate Eliot Cutler came within a few thousand votes of defeating Republican Paul LePage (or, as some who were disappointed by his candidacy would say, he “split the vote” and handed LePage the governorship).
In 2012, Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s 1.1% of the vote in Maine was her best showing in any state. Johnson’s 1.3% in Maine that year wasn’t a national record, but was similarly well above his .99% national average.
This year, with such high initial negative ratings for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and because of the deep fractures Trump has caused within the Republican Party and electoral coalition, both of these third-party candidates, both running again, could see improved margins.
If Johnson, who is hovering around 9% support nationally, somehow made a big jump in the polls and passed the 15% national threshold by September to make it into one or more debates, (a long-shot hypothetical at this point) he would immediately become a contender to at least take second place in Maine.
It’s important to note, however, that for both candidates their electoral support is likely less than the numbers seen in polls right now (Stein is polling at around 3% nationally). Third-party candidates have historically polled better, especially this far out from an election, than they perform on Election Day. In fact, there’s a significant amount of controversy among pollsters on how to measure their support without giving a distorted view of voter preferences.
The most obvious question when it comes to third-party candidates is how they effect the race between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Despite Johnson’s rightward lean (both he and his running mate Bill Weld are former Republican governors), that answer isn’t quite as clear as you might think. There’s some evidence that Johnson’s presence in the race actually narrows Clinton’s lead. One could theorize this is due to some conservative-leaning voters who have rejected Trump going with Clinton when they think she’s the only other option, but switching to Johnson upon learning there’s another choice on the ballot.
Stein has had less of a profile in the campaign so far, but when she pops up its mostly to attack Clinton and court progressive voters. A rise in her support would likely come mostly from voters otherwise ideologically predisposed to the Democratic nominee.
The Johnson campaign, especially, seems to understand the potential Maine represents. In addition to his visit, an allied super PAC has begun running ads in the Presque Isle media market and local Libertarians, buoyed by the formation of an official party in Maine, are organizing to achieve the 10,000 registered-and-voting member threshold to maintain their party status.