THE POWER OF THE PROTEST VOTE

By ANDREW KOHUT From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.) Don’t be surprised if third or fourth p...

By ANDREW KOHUT From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)

Don’t be surprised if third or fourth party presidential candidates garner enough votes in November to make a difference in some of the hotly contested swing states. The polls show more than enough Republican disaffection with John McCain’s candidacy to make a case that Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate, or another right-of-center candidate could take votes away from the GOP standard bearer.

And on the Democratic side, Barack Obama has to worry about defections of not only Hillary Clinton’s supporters, but also of liberals, who are beginning to grumble that he is moving too much toward the center.

The 2000 presidential election clearly showed that third party candidates do not have to roll up big numbers to make a huge difference. Ralph Nader accumulated just 2 percent of the vote in Florida – and exit polls found that Al Gore was the second choice among most of Nader’s voters. While Democratic voters were never wildly enthusiastic about Gore during that campaign, the climate of opinion about John McCain is more fragile this year.

Pew’s nationwide voter poll in late June revealed that significantly fewer McCain supporters than Obama supporters say they are strongly committed to their candidate. McCain engenders less commitment than George W. Bush enjoyed at this stage in his presidential campaigns. Indeed, the disparity in strong support for the two candidates this year is the largest measured in the last two decades. Among supporters of each candidate, almost twice as many describe themselves as strong Obama backers compared with McCain backers (58 percent vs. 34 percent).

McCain’s standing is in stark contrast to the support for Bush four years ago, when the vast majority of Bush voters (71 percent) said they backed him strongly. In June 2000, committed Bush backers constituted only 44 percent of his support, but this was significantly more than McCain now registers. You have to go back to Bob Dole in 1996 to match the current lack of enthusiasm for John McCain.

Today, Republican voter malaise is evident in a number of other ways, as well. Uncharacteristically, fewer Republicans than Democrats say it really matters who wins the presidential election (62 percent vs. 70 percent). And while 74 percent of Democrats say they are satisfied with the candidates, only 49 percent of Republicans feel this way.

While the Democrats and the Obama campaign can take some comfort in these numbers, there are potential problems for them, too. Barack Obama has a unity problem. Hillary Clinton’s supporters have moved in Obama’s direction since the primaries ended, but only 72 percent say they would back him if the election were held today. In particular, Obama is not polling well among white women.

McCain and Obama are running about even among this important voter bloc and he trails McCain among older women, despite the strong Democratic disposition of this group.

Could a small number of disappointed Clinton supporters be attracted to a third party candidate? Sure. Perhaps more important, there is the question of whether Obama can live up to the expectations that his liberal backers have about his commitment to change. The Times’ William Yardley reported recently that critics on the left are emerging in response to Obama’s positions on the war in Iraq, wiretapping, gun control and the death penalty.

While there is little indication of this in Pew’s polling data, our latest survey finds a rise in support of the idea of a third party candidate among people who have been ardent Obama backers: young voters, liberals and independents.

Nonetheless, given the level of enthusiasm for Obama, it is unlikely that a left-of-center third party candidate could draw major support, but certainly matching Nader’s 2000 numbers in Florida cannot be ruled out.

And on the Republican side, the door is wide open for a third party to matter. In fact, polls conducted by Fox News, The Los Angeles Times and ABC/Washington Post now have about 7 percent of the vote going either to Barr or Nader. Whatever the limitations of these candidates’ personal appeal, either or both could be protest candidates.

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July 29, 2008
© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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