Faced with a choice of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, thousands of Ohio suburbanites opened door No. 3 in 2016.
Whether they were casting protest votes or had a strong affinity for the lesser-known names on their ballots, those voters had a bigger effect on the outcome in the suburbs four years ago than in 2012.
Winning those voters over — or keeping more from flocking to join them — could be a factor in winning the state’s suburban battleground in the 2020 general election in just less than six months.
“I think we have substantial support in both suburban and rural areas,” said Harold D. Thomas, chair of the Ohio Libertarian Party. “We like to think of it in terms (that) we appeal to the politically independent.”
In 2016, third-party and independent candidates received about 4.4% of the vote in Ohio’s 114 suburbs, about triple the share of the ballots they earned in 2012, according to a Dispatch analysis.
That pales in comparison to Trump and Clinton, but it could represent a key piece to securing a battleground area where the two major-party candidates were separated by a little more than 1%.
“How these formerly third-party voters break is a big piece of the 2020 puzzle, both in Ohio and elsewhere,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Travis Irvine, who won about 3% of the 2018 vote as the Libertarian candidate for governor, said the country’s polarization likely will hurt the party this year.
“I’m a bit fearful that … the red vs. blue divide is so great, that Democrats are so fearful of Trump winning again and Republicans are terrified of Biden winning, that both sides will firmly stick to their ‘teams’ as opposed to having an honest discourse about the failures of the two-party system — especially during a global pandemic — which has given us such poor, limited options as Trump and Biden.”
So far, no third-party or independent candidates have filed to run in Ohio. The Libertarian Party will likely wait until summer to select its candidate, and the Green Party is scheduled to choose a candidate in July.
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party in 2019 and eventually joined the Libertarian Party, is mulling a run. Amash was the only non-Democrat to vote for Trump’s impeachment.
Irvine said Amash may attract surprising support. “Frankly, since both sides are accusing the other of running a senile old man with rape allegations against him, I think Justin will provide a strong alternative for voters seeking something — anything — different in 2020.”
But Kondik said Amash will be hard-pressed to replicate Johnson’s numbers in 2020.
“I think there were a lot of traditional Republican voters who could not bring themselves to vote for (Trump), and Johnson becomes a good alternative for them,” he said.
Republican strategist Jai Chabria said it’s impossible to know whether third-party voters are breaking along party lines, though. While Johnson offered himself as an alternative to Trump, he could have been taking votes from Clinton as well.
“In Ohio, I don’t think these third-party challengers are really going to change the makeup of what’s going to happen in the presidential election,” said Chabria, who served as senior adviser to former Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
Suburbs, though, are home to more traditional Republicans, 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 it didn’t mean they were going to cast a ballot for a Democrat, said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
But Pepper believes his party has a stronger argument in 2020 than it did in 2016, when Trump was running without a political track record.
“I think the sort of feeling of a protest vote of (2016) is quite different than the consequences of four more years of Trump,” he said. “The consequence of a third-party candidate leading to Trump getting re-elected is much more clear than it was in 2016.”