Some have suggested that with an unpopular president who's got a somewhat dissatisfied base and suffers from a weak economy, and with a Republican nominee who inevitably will either struggle with the middle or who is not conservative enough for the right, there is room for a strong third-party bid for the first time in at least 16 years. But we took a look at seven possible independent candidates against Obama and his strongest GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, and found that the chances of defection by GOP-inclined voters are stronger than are cracks in the Democrats’ armor. Despite their grumbling, Democrats remain pretty united behind Obama, and six of the seven possible independent candidates would hurt Romney more than the president.
Head-to-head, Romney and Obama are tied at 45% in the national popular vote, per Tuesday’s release. Against Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the major-party candidates are still knotted at 42%, with Bloomberg at 10%. Faced with a well-known moderate who leans more left these days, this is the only instance in which Romney is able to hold more of his base than the president does of his (82% versus 78%). But Obama treads water by holding a six-point lead with independents, 13% of whom go to Bloomberg.
With a challenge from his left by either Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or perpetual Democratic thorn Ralph Nader, Obama would remain at 45%, with Romney falling to 41% and Nader getting 7% and Sanders only 5%. Partly because Democrats hate Nader and aren't familiar with Sanders, Romney would still win more Democratic support, in double digits, than either of these liberal candidates would. But Obama again leads, this time by ten against Sanders and 13 against Nader, with independent voters.
Jon Huntsman has spent a lot of time criticizing both parties lately, and if he takes his iconoclasm from his quixotic GOP primary bid to the general, he would earn 7%, with Obama prevailing, 46-40. Huntsman is the second-least-known of these candidates after Sanders, so he essentially serves as a "generic centrist independent" in more than half of poll respondents' eyes. Romney still pulls more Democrats than Huntsman does, but Obama leads by 18 with independents.
Though he refused in 2008, there would probably be a lot of appetite for a third-party candidacy from 1988 Libertarian Party nominee Ron Paul. He would get a solid 15%, with Romney falling to 33% and Obama still at 45%. Paul earns the most independent support of any of these third-party options (20%), almost all GOP-leaners, as Obama beats Romney by 20 with independents overall. Paul also holds Romney to 63% of Republicans, taking 22% himself. Despite his supporters' claims about his popularity with Democrats, Paul wouldn't get anymore crossover support from Democrats than any of the others.
Even though he declined to make good on his flirtation with running as a Republican earlier this year, Donald Trump keeps reviving his threats to run as an independent if he isn't personally satisfied with the GOP nominee. Even though his birther shenanigans trashed his name with most voters, he would still pull 18% to Romney’s 30% and Obama’s 46%, meaning Romney would finish closer to third than first. After initially leading in our April national primary poll, Trump soon tanked before announcing he wouldn't run after all. But Republican voters would still give him 32% of their support to Romney's 56%, and he'd also pull 17% of independents, with Obama up 51-27 over Romney.
Romney’s biggest obstacle could come from Sarah Palin, whose decision about whether she will run at all remains a mystery. She isn't polling all that well in our primary matchups anymore, with more Republicans coalescing around the announced candidates. But Palin would split general-electorate Republicans, with Romney at 46% to her 41%. As she usually does when the two are pitted head-to-head, she would give Obama his biggest lead among independents, 51-26, with Palin at 15%. Overall, Obama would run away with the election, 47-26-21 over Romney and Palin.
The main problem for Romney is that Obama holds his base, both Democrats and the independents who are inclined to vote for him anyway, better than Romney does his. Most of the peeling-off is among Republicans (at least against Palin, Trump, and Paul) and independents who might ordinarily lean Romney's way if he were the only other choice than Obama. These independent candidates earn only 4-9% of the Democratic vote, and Obama gets 41-51% of the independent vote, not much less than the 48-59% he gets against just the five Republicans we tested against him head-to-head. By contrast, while Romney is the strongest head-to-head with independents, trailing the president by nine points, he gets a measly 26-35% of the independent vote in these three-way match-ups. The only third-partier who would help Romney in that department is Bloomberg, and Romney would still lag by six with independents, and by 10 to 25 points versus the others.
Romney would probably be more susceptible to a right-wing third-party challenge than would, say, Rick Perry, and less so to someone like Bloomberg or Huntsman than would Perry. But whoever comes out of the Republican primary is almost certainly going to be weaker than the president--less popular, with less money, with a bruised image, and with a less secure voting bloc. The GOP is going to be walking on thin ice, praying not to draw a challenge from either the center or the right. It'll be a tough, fine line to satisfy both ends of the spectrum.
Full results here.