They might not win, but third-party candidates could sway presidential vote in NC

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In a presidential election year featuring the two most unpopular major-party nominees in at least 40 years – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – many voters are taking a hard look at third- and fourth-party candidates for the White House.

And in North Carolina, even a modest November showing by one of these alternative candidates could tip the balance in this key battleground state where the Democrat and Republican are virtually tied, according to average of recent polls.

“If we’re talking about a coin toss (between Clinton and Trump),” said Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer, “anybody or any group that takes 3 to maybe 5 percent of the vote will have an impact in North Carolina.”

For now, nobody expects Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein to surge into actual contention, like Texas billionaire Ross Perot did for a time in 1992. Ditto Evan McMullin, a conservative representative of the “Never Trump” movement within the GOP who launched his independent campaign less than a week ago. Any of them will be lucky to be included in the televised presidential debates scheduled to begin next month.

But opting for these long-shots and their reform agendas could prove tempting to at least some voters who don’t trust Clinton and don’t think Trump is fit for the job.

How would that affect the race overall?

In North Carolina, Clinton could benefit, and nationally, Trump could gain the most.

Around this time – late summer – many fall in love with third parties and their candidates. But as we get closer to November, the traditional partisan affiliations kick in. This year, though, we are dealing with a very different set of realities.

Michael Bitzer, Catawba College

An analysis of nationwide polls in July by the political website FiveThirtyEight found that surveys that included Johnson and, less frequently, Stein showed a smaller lead for Clinton than when pollsters tested only her and Trump.

But an average of recent N.C. polls, compiled by the RealClear Politics website, found Clinton’s lead in the state grew when Johnson and Stein were included.

Clinton is just 2 percentage points ahead of Trump in an average of the head-to-head match-ups in North Carolina. The 45.3 percent to 43.3 percent result is within the surveys’ margin of error.

But in polls that forecast a four-way race in North Carolina – including Johnson and Stein – Clinton’s lead grew even as her and Trump’s numbers shrank. The RealClear Politics average: Clinton, 44 percent; Trump, 39.7 percent; Johnson, 6 percent; and Stein, 1.7 percent.

Those averages include a NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Friday that gave Clinton a 9-point lead in North Carolina.

The best bet to have an impact – in North Carolina and nationally – is Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico. He is running this year, as he did in 2012, on a socially liberal-fiscally conservative Libertarian Party platform that calls for smaller and less intrusive government.

He and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, also an ex-Republican, will have their names and party listed on the N.C. ballot, along with Trump, Clinton and their vice presidential picks. The Libertarian Party, which also fields statewide candidates, has been on the N.C. ballot most years since 1976.

Stein and her Green Party will not be listed on the state’s ballot. But her campaign turned in enough signatures – 500 – to make the Massachusetts-based physician-environmentalist a “certified write-in” candidate. That means county election boards will count her total if supporters write in her name. Her running mate is human rights activist Ajamu Baraka.

Then there’s McMullin, a former CIA counterrorism officer with some Republican establishment support. He and his yet-to-be-named running mate missed the state’s June 1 deadline to present the necessary 89,366 signatures to have their names listed on the ballot. But McMullin’s chief strategist promised in a published memo to mount a legal challenge in states whose deadlines have passed or whose high signature requirements are potentially unconstitutional.

That won’t be an easy case, but it could be a winning one, said Richard Winger, a California-based expert on ballot access.

Winger, longtime editor of the Ballot Access News, called North Carolina “the worst state in the country for a presidential candidate to get on the ballot.” He cited the “extreme number of signatures required” – 2 percent of the votes cast in the last N.C. gubernatorial election – and the country’s second earliest deadline, behind only Texas.

The courts, Winger said, have not looked kindly on unnecessarily restrictive ballot-access laws. Still, time is not on the McMullin campaign’s side: the November election is less than 90 days away and, last week, North Carolina began the process of printing its 2016 ballots.

‘Lesser of two evils’

Libertarian Party nominee Johnson is polling in double digits in some western states – including Utah, where his campaign is headquartered and where a recent poll put him at 16 percent.

In the latest North Carolina poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist, Johnson is up to 9 percent.

But while Clinton and Trump are busy stumping in battleground states, Johnson’s strategy so far has been to appear on as many national TV and radio shows and political websites as he can. The goal: Increase his standing in national polls. Reaching 15 percent would likely get him an invitation to participate in the debates with Clinton and Trump, where Johnson’s affable personality and focus on issues might play well. In the latest RealPolitics average of national polls, Johnson is at 9 percent. The Johnson-Weld ticket is expected to be on the ballot in all 50 states.

Brian Irving, chairman of the Libertarian Party in North Carolina, said the Johnson campaign is looking at a possible visit to North Carolina. He was here twice in 2012; during one campaign swing, he participated in a 5K race in Huntersville.

Irving said he’s been hearing this year from North Carolinians “who are tired of voting for the lesser of two evils. ... We’re starting to get Republicans who think their party has lost its way (with Trump). But we’re also hearing from disgruntled Democrats.”

Johnson’s Libertarian take on the issues is guaranteed to both attract and repel voters of all ideological stripes. In polls, he appears to draw support from both Republicans and Democrats.

He supports same-sex marriage and wants to legalize marijuana use. But he also favors abolishing the IRS and replacing corporate and income taxes with a consumption tax. He would immediately withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and push to cut federal spending – including the Pentagon – by 20 percent. But he also wants to reform Social Security and other entitlement programs by, among other things, raising the retirement age to 70 or 72 and letting states handle Medicare.

For voters like Anne McIntosh, a registered Democrat in Mooresville, Johnson’s stands on the issues – not strictly left or right – and his experience as a GOP governor in a mostly Democratic state are refreshing enough to give him “serious consideration.”

“He (had) a good record of working across party lines when he served as governor of New Mexico,” said McIntosh, a professor at Central Piedmont Community College and CEO of a small company. “His campaign is more appealing because he is not polarizing or on the extreme end of the political system. Moderation is key for me.”

‘Green revolution’

The Green Party’s Stein-Baraka ticket is now slated to be on the ballot in 27 states, though its goal by November is more like 47.

But in North Carolina, the cost and manpower required to gather nearly 90,000 signatures was too much – leaving a certified write-in candidacy as the only option.

So the effort in the state will be to “make people aware they can vote for her,” said Wayne Turner, one of the chairs of the Green Party in North Carolina.

As in other states, Stein’s campaign will be reaching out especially to former backers of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who ran against Clinton in the Democratic primary.

“A significant number of Bernie supporters are going to vote for Jill Stein,” said Chatham County-based Turner. “Our Facebook pages have been flooded – they really want a progressive alternative, including in North Carolina.”

Stein, who also ran as the Green Party nominee in 2012, did a low-key campaign swing through Asheville and the state’s other urban areas last November, Turner said.

Her liberal agenda includes: sparking a “green revolution” by investing in job-creating renewable energy projects; converting to Medicare-for-all health care; canceling student debt; cutting way back on military spending; and reenacting laws that would curb big banks.

In last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll for North Carolina, Stein got 2 percent.

Too many signatures?

Independent candidate McMullin’s resume includes a graduate degree from the Wharton School of Business and stints as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and policy director for the House Republican Conference.

But it’s another credential – his time with the CIA – that he plans to highlight in a campaign that will stress national security issues. His hope is to woo conservative Republicans who don’t feel like Trump is the right choice for commander-in-chief. Also, unlike Trump, McMullin appears to be a fierce advocate for Middle Eastern refugees.

Winger of Ballot Access News said McMullin and others will have a hard time getting on North Carolina’s ballot because of the number of signatures required and the early deadline.

From 1929 to 1981, minor parties needed only 10,000 signatures, he said. But that changed after the Socialist Workers’ Party got on the N.C. ballot in 1980.

“The legislature reacted badly,” Winger said, first lowering the required signatures to 5,000, but adding that all signers of such petitions would be listed as members of the party seeking signatures.

The Socialist Workers Party sued and won, Winger said. So in 1983, he said, “the legislature got even,” increasing the number of required signatures to get on the ballot to 2 percent of the previous N.C. election’s vote for governor. Now that’s 89,366 – second only to California, Winger said.

That has kept some notable third-party presidential candidates off the N.C. ballot – in 2000, for example, Ralph Nader may have cost Democrat Al Gore the election, but Nader was not listed on the N.C. ballot.

But North Carolina has been hospitable to some independent presidential candidates over the years.

In 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, then running as the nominee of the American Independent Party, finished second in a three-way race in the state. With 31.26 percent of the N.C. vote, he lost the state to Republican Richard Nixon (39.5 percent), but beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey (29.24 percent).

And in 1992, Perot, running the first of his two independent campaigns for president, took almost 14 percent of the N.C. vote.

This year, Trump and Clinton have been feverishly competing for North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes. But they remain “underwater” here – political lingo for having higher unfavorable ratings than favorable ones.

That could open a door for a third-party contender to at least make a difference.

“The general pattern I’ve seen in the state is that, around this time – late summer – many fall in love with third parties and their candidates. But as we get closer to November, the traditional partisan affiliations kick in,” said Bitzer of Catawba College. “This year, though, we are dealing with a very different set of realities.”