Q&A: Does an increase in support for a third party candidate signal electoral trouble for Congressional Republicans?

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted October 25-28, 2013, registered voters were asked who they would vote for if the choice in their Congressional District were between a Republican candidate, a Democratic candidate and an Independent or third party candidate.

The topline data showed 35% choosing the Democratic candidate, 30% choosing an Independent candidate, and just 28% choosing a Republican candidate.

The 30% of voters choosing an Independent candidate is five points higher than it was in 2010, and the last place ranking for a generic GOP candidate could, on first sight, look concerning to Republicans.  However, a look inside the numbers provides a reality check and needed context.

First, a reality check. It is important to understand not every Congressional battle will have a third party candidate on the ballot. There are a lot of reasons for this but, essentially it takes some combination of name ID, money, and organization to make a third candidate viable. To show just how rare it is, I took a look at the number of votes cast for third party candidates in the past:

  • In 1992, when Ross Perot captured 18.9% of the popular vote for President as an Independent Party candidate (making him the most successful national third party candidate since 1912 in terms of popular vote), just 1.29% of congressional votes were cast for Independent Party candidates.

    Taken together, GOP and Dem votes accounted for 95% of the 1992 congressional votes cast, with just five percent of all votes going to any third party candidates combined (including everything from Independent to Libertarian to Green to Socialist Workers Party).  Republicans picked up nine seats that year. *

  • In 2010, just four percent of all votes cast were for 3rd party candidates, with 1.15% cast for Libertarian candidates.*
  • Over the past sixty years, with the exception of Bernie Sanders (VT-AL), candidates who have run as Independent/third party in a three-way congressional race have at most disrupted the fundamentals of the race and only to the benefit of one or the other candidate.

Data from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll among the 30% of registered voters who would choose an Independent/third party candidate provides a needed perspective.

  1. The profile of these voters closely tracks with a profile of ‘92 Perot voters.
    • They tend to be younger male voters with less formal education. This profile is consistent with how this group looked in 2010.
  2. They are extremely negative about each party.

    • Majorities have negative feelings about the Republican Party (12% Positive  – 56% Negative) and the Democratic Party (17% Positive – 56% Negative) while a plurality feel negatively toward the Tea Party Movement (24% Positive  – 44% Negative).
    • Fewer than one in five (19%) identify as a Republican (11%) or Democrat (8%).
  3. Still, they tend to lean right and prefer Republican Candidates to Democrat Candidates.

    • When you include those Independents who lean with each party, this group of voters tilts Republican by eight percent (35% Republican/lean Republican and 27% Democrat/lean Democrat) with 29% identifying as “strictly Independent.”
    • While they may prefer a third party candidate, these voters prefer a Republican-controlled Congress by double-digits (45% GOP-controlled – 31% Dem-controlled).
    • Importantly, among those who voted in 2012, this group voted for Mitt Romney by 12 points.
  4. And, they have positions that align with Republicans.

    • Third party voters are much more likely to prefer divided government (19% say same party should control Congress and the Presidency to work together more closely while 75% say different parties should control Congress and the Presidency to prevent either one from going too far).
    • They are extremely sour about the direction of the country (10% right direction – 85% wrong track) and the job Obama is doing as president (27% approve – 66% disapprove).
    • They are among the most ardent opponents of Obamacare (27% Good idea – 57% Bad idea, with 51% strongly bad idea).
    • They are more likely than the overall population to call for a major overhaul of the healthcare law (28% among all adults, 38% among third party voters). However, unlike Republicans, they are NOT significantly more likely than all adults to call for repeal of the law (24% among all adults, 26% among third party voters).

Bottom line

While the generic Republican candidate comes in third place in a national ballot, there is no question that those preferring an independent/third party will break heavily to the Republican candidate in a two-way race.

It’s important to keep in mind that:

  • Third party candidates rarely surpass single digit showings in Congressional elections but even then they can disrupt the margins of a two-candidate campaign.
  • Absent a viable conservative third party candidate the data suggests that the group of voters who would be most likely to vote for them, while clearly not ready to stand proudly under either party’s banner, is much more aligned with the Republican Party and their ideas.

Politicians from both parties have plenty to mull over in the two October surveys conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, for Republican candidates the threat of a third party in 2014 is pretty far down that list.

Data from the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives

Public Opinion Strategies