Thousands of Ohio suburbs opened door number 3 in 2016, given the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Whether they cast protest votes or had a strong affinity for the lesser-known names on their ballot papers, those voters four years ago had a bigger impact on the suburbs’ outcome than they did in 2012.
Winning these voters over – or more dissuading them from joining them – could be one factor in winning the state’s suburban battlefield in the 2020 general election in less than six months.
“I think we have significant support in both suburbs and rural areas,” said Harold D. Thomas, chairman of the Ohio Libertarian Party. “We like to remember that we appeal to the politically independent.”
In 2016, third party and independent candidates in Ohio’s 114 suburbs received roughly 4.4% of the vote, which is roughly three times the percentage of ballots they received in 2012, according to a shipping analysis.
That pales in comparison to Trump and Clinton, but it could be a key element in securing a battlefield in which the two big party’s candidates were separated by just over 1%.
“Breaking these former third-party voters is a big piece of the puzzle for 2020 in Ohio and elsewhere,” said Kyle Kondik, editor-in-chief of the Sabatos Crystal Ball newsletter at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Travis Irvine, who received around 3% of the vote as a libertarian gubernatorial candidate in 2018, said the country’s polarization is likely to hurt the party this year.
“I’m a bit afraid that … the gap between red and blue is so big that Democrats are so afraid that Trump will win again, and Republicans are afraid of Biden’s victory that both sides are stuck with their ‘ Teams’ honest discourse on the failure of the two-party system – especially during a global pandemic – has given us such poor, limited options as Trump and Biden. “
To date, no third party or independent candidates have applied to apply in Ohio. The libertarian party is likely to wait until summer to select its candidate and the Green party is expected to select a candidate in July.
US Representative Justin Amash from Michigan, who left the Republican Party in 2019 and eventually joined the Libertarian Party, is considering a run. Amash was the only non-democrat to vote for Trump’s impeachment.
Irvine said Amash may find surprising support. “Honestly, with both sides accusing the other of leading a senile old man against him on rape allegations, I think Justin will be a strong alternative for voters looking for something different in 2020.”
But Kondik said Amash will have a hard time replicating Johnson’s numbers in 2020.
“I think there have been a lot of traditional Republican voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for (Trump) and Johnson will be a good alternative for them,” he said.
Republican strategist Jai Chabria said it was impossible to know if third party voters were breaking party-political standards. While Johnson offered himself as an alternative to Trump, he could also have received votes from Clinton.
“I don’t think these third-party challengers in Ohio will really change the makeup of the presidential election,” said Chabria, who served as senior adviser to former Governor John Kasich, a Republican president, candidate in 2016.
However, more traditional Republicans live in the suburbs and Trump’s populist message might not resonate as strongly with them, he said.
Democrats learned a “painful lesson” in 2016 that just because voters didn’t like Trump didn’t mean they’d cast a ballot for a Democrat, said Ohio Democratic Party leader David Pepper.
But Pepper believes his party has a stronger argument in 2020 than it did in 2016, when Trump ran without a political track record.
“I think the feeling of a protest vote from (2016) is very different from the consequences of four more years of Trump,” he said. “The consequence of a third party candidate leading to Trump being re-elected is much clearer than it was in 2016.”