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Support for Third-Party Candidates Appears Limited Thus Far

Support for Third-Party Candidates Appears Limited Thus Far

PRINCETON, NJ -- A new Gallup Poll finds only 2% of registered voters naming a third-party candidate when asked in an open-ended fashion whom they will vote for this fall.

The question, part of an Aug. 7-10 Gallup Poll, allowed respondents to name any candidate or political party, without prompting of specific names from Gallup interviewers. This is a different approach than Gallup takes in its Daily tracking polling and USA Today/Gallup polls, in which voters are asked whether they would vote for Barack Obama or John McCain for president if the election were held today.

With the unaided question used in the new poll, 83% of registered voters named either Obama (45%) or McCain (38%) as their preferred candidate. Obama's 7-point advantage over McCain on the open-ended ballot is similar to the 5-point lead he currently holds in Gallup's Daily tracking poll.

Another 1% of voters mentioned Hillary Clinton, who conceded the Democratic nomination to Obama in early June after a long and intense campaign, but who retains a loyal following. An additional 1% mentioned one of several other candidates (mainly Republicans) who are ineligible to run (George W. Bush) or have long since ended their campaigns (Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul) and will not appear on the ballot this fall.

Thirteen percent of registered voters are either undecided (6%) or say they do not plan to vote (7%).

That leaves only about 2% who say they plan to vote for a third-party candidate in November -- not much different from the 1% in Gallup Poll Daily tracking who typically volunteer that they will vote for someone other than Obama or McCain. On the open-ended question, 1% specifically name Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr and 1% name Ralph Nader, who is running as an independent this year after unsuccessful presidential bids in 1996, 2000, and 2004. Less than 1% mention the name of Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party's nominee. No other organized third parties running a presidential candidate were named by poll respondents.

It is important to note that Gallup interviewers accepted the actual name of the candidate or the candidate's party affiliation as a valid response. So, for example, if a supporter of the Libertarian Party was not aware that Barr was the party's candidate, his or her response would still be registered as a Libertarian vote.

Measuring Third-Party Support

There are certainly trade-offs in trying to get an accurate read on third-party candidate support. Each election year, Gallup uses a variety of approaches, including third-party candidate name identification, the open-ended question reported here, and prompted ballots, in which the names of all candidates who will appear on the ballot in most states are read, to try to assess the level of third-party voting. These questions help inform Gallup about the level of third-party voting but they also inform Gallup about whether a third-party candidate merits inclusion in its standard presidential trial-heat question.

The standard closed-ended Gallup trial-heat question used in Gallup Poll Daily tracking and USA Today/Gallup polling has thus far in 2008 not included the names of minor-party candidates. Doing so runs the risk of overestimating their actual support and affecting poll accuracy, based on a comparison of final pre-election poll estimates to the actual vote on Election Day. Typically, unless there has been a well-known and well-funded third-party candidate running (like Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996), minor-party candidates have accounted for about 1% to 2% of the actual vote on Election Day. Recent polls by other firms that have included the names of minor-party candidates in their presidential trial heats find total third-party support ranging from 5% to 10% among registered voters.

Even though Gallup does not read the names of minor-party candidates in its standard question, it does accept volunteered responses of minor-party candidates in its closed-ended questions (about 1% in tracking so far this year). Still, it is possible that individual respondents might think they can choose only from among the names read when the question is asked, and thus may not know that they can volunteer the name of a third-party candidate.

The open-ended question gets around this potential pitfall by putting all candidates on equal footing, so to speak. No names are read, and therefore there can be no presupposition that the respondent should make a choice between the two major-party candidates. Thus, if there is significant unmeasured support for a candidate outside of the two major parties that is not being detected through volunteered responses in the standard closed-ended question, the open-ended question should pick it up -- particularly if voters are highly committed to voting for a third-party candidate.

Gallup's standard measure of listing the candidates when asking the presidential trial-heat question dates back to the 1936 election, and attempts to mimic the act of voting as closely as possible. When voters cast their ballots on Election Day, the candidates' names and party affiliations are listed on the ballot for them to see. The open-ended question thus requires a higher standard of knowledge of the candidates running than does voting itself, but is a useful secondary approach to make sure the standard ballot is not missing any undetected third-party support.


While it is not out of the question that third-party voting could be higher this year than it has been in most recent elections, the new Gallup Poll clearly suggests there is no unmeasured groundswell of support for any of the minor-party candidates running at this point in the campaign.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 903 registered voters, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 7-10, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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