Eyeing narrow margins, Clinton campaign tries to keep voters from going over to third parties
With polls showing a tightening presidential race, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is playing defense against third-party candidates to keep them from widening Donald Trump’s path to victory.
Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein are drawing enough support, particularly from millennials, to threaten Clinton’s chances and spark warnings from top Democrats.
“You have some people who are dancing with a third party,” said David Plouffe, who ran President Obama’s 2008 campaign. “You’ve got to go out there and fight. We know from history that they can make a difference.”
Support for Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, is at 7.4%, according to a Real Clear Politics average of national polls, and he exceeds that number in battlegrounds like Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire. Stein, a doctor and activist, has consistently polled in the low single digits, though she isn’t on the ballot in some key states like North Carolina.
Polls show that Johnson is not only drawing interest from Republicans turned off by Trump, but from millennials whom Clinton wants as part of her coalition this year. The generation, which includes voters age 18 to 35, makes up about a third of the electorate.
“When you see Johnson and Stein combined with eight, 10, 11, 12 points in some of these polls, that’s a problem,” said Mark Longabaugh, who advised Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary. “That is the differential in the election at this point.”
Clinton’s allies have taken notice of the threat. NextGen Climate, the super PAC run by San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, released a Web video targeting Johnson over his unwillingness to tackle global warming, a key issue for millennials.
The Clinton campaign has already stepped up its efforts to win over younger voters who are more willing than older generations to consider third-party candidates. Obama won at least 60% of voters under 30 in 2008 and 2012; Clinton has lagged behind that level in polls even though millennials favor her over Trump.
Her strategy includes calling on Sanders, her rival in the Democratic primary, to help prevent his young supporters from drifting toward Johnson or Stein.
“New Hampshire could decide the outcome,” said Sanders, who is expected to ramp up his travel on Clinton’s behalf. “This election is enormously important for the future of our country. It is imperative that we elect Hillary Clinton as our next president.”
High-profile Democrats cautioned voters not to be tempted to vote for Johnson or Stein.
“If you vote for a third-party candidate who’s got no chance to win, that’s a vote for Trump,” Obama said on Steve Harvey’s radio show Wednesday. “So the notion somehow that, ‘Well, you know, I’m not as inspired because Barack and Michelle, they’re not on the ballot this time, and, you know, maybe we kind of take it easy’ — my legacy’s on the ballot. You know, all the work we’ve done over the last eight years is on the ballot.”
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, raised the specter of Ralph Nader’s 2000 candidacy, which helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore.
“Casting a protest vote for a third-party candidate that’s going to lose may well affect the outcome and may well lead to a consequence that is deeply, deeply troubling,” Kaine said in an interview with Katie Couric last week.
Enthusiasm for third-party candidates often recedes as the election draws closer and voters recalibrate their decisions, and the likelihood of a Trump victory could push more people into Clinton’s corner. Clinton’s campaign also plans to emphasize certain parts of her biography, including her work for the Children’s Defense Fund as a young law school graduate, to win over skeptics.
“The more that voters on all sides — those interested in Donald Trump and those interested in third-party candidates — hear about that career and about what she wants to do as president, the more they will be open to supporting Hillary Clinton,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the former secretary of State’s campaign.
Johnson projects an open-minded image that’s appealing to young voters, said Ron Nielson, a senior strategist for his campaign.
“You could certainly say Johnson is a lot more hip than Clinton or Trump,” Nielson said. “He does things a lot of millennials can see themselves doing,” like hiking or biking. Johnson also supports legalizing marijuana nationwide.
The Libertarian ticket has found an opening in an electorate disillusioned with political parties and government in general, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard University Institute of Politics.
“It’s about a lack of trust with Hillary Clinton and the system more generally,” he said. “He is the vessel that, at this stage of the campaign, that a fairly significant number of folks are using to send a message.”
Part of the dissatisfaction stems from the primary, said Van Jones, a CNN commentator and former Obama advisor. Although Clinton worked with Sanders to incorporate his ideas into the Democratic Party platform, Jones said, she didn’t do enough to address his supporters’ complaints about the primary process.
Some remain concerned that the national party aided Clinton over Sanders, a perception fueled by hacked Democratic Party emails released by WikiLeaks this summer.
“Hillary Clinton is in danger of paying a price in November for ignoring Sanders voters’ concerns about process in the spring,” Jones said.
The Democratic National Committee replaced its chair after the controversy, and spokesman T.J. Helmstetter said party leadership has “made it clear to progressive leaders across the country that their ideas, opinions, and values have a home at the DNC.”
Clinton’s allies are using policy issues to tamp down enthusiasm for Johnson, pointing to his approach to government that’s at odds with the vision outlined by Sanders, who was millennials’ favorite candidate in the primary.
NextGen Climate, which has been registering voters on college campuses in battleground states, spent $100,000 to run a video about Johnson on Facebook, targeting Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
“Thinking about voting for Gary Johnson?” the video asks, then includes clips of him supporting more coal power plants and suggesting that global warming isn’t worth addressing because “the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the earth.”
“We wanted to make sure they had the same facts on him as they do on Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump,” said Suzanne Henkels, a NextGen spokeswoman. “Gary Johnson’s position is not much different than Donald Trump’s.”
3:25 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from the Democratic National Committee.
This story was originally published at 2:30 p.m.
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