Poll: Trump would lose a three-way race if a strong third-party candidate jumps in

Maybe this will convince the left to dial down their meltdown over Howard Schultz’s candidacy from “Chernobyl” levels to a more manageable “Three-Mile Island.”

The obvious problem for Scott Rasmussen in polling this was how best to measure support for someone like Schultz. You can’t ask people if they’d vote for him specifically. Most of the public hasn’t the faintest clue who he is yet. So Rasmussen tried a different tack, offering generic alternatives to Trump to try to gauge how broadly receptive voters might be to the idea of a three-way race. Would they even consider directing their vote to a third-party candidate? As it turns out, yes. Many would.

Given a choice between Donald Trump, a centrist Democrat, and a third-party candidate, 39% would vote for the centrist Democrat, 32% for President Trump, and 29% for the third-party option.

The results are similar when asked about a progressive Democrat. In that match-up, the Democrat gets 40%, Trump 33% and the third party candidate 27%.

In both options, 23% of Republicans would vote for the third-party candidate. Among women, just 27% would support the president.

The obvious problem is that when you offer generic alternatives you implicitly invite the person being polled to imagine the best possible option for those alternatives instead of the option they’re likely to have. Would most Americans consider supporting *any* independent candidate? Well, sure. There are plenty of pols whom the average joe likes and might take a look at if they were to jump in. Would most Americans consider supporting Howard Schultz specifically? Ehhhh. What we’re likely seeing here is the absolute theoretical ceiling for a third-party candidate, with the real-world ceiling far lower.

As for the momentous question of whether Schultz would hurt Democrats more or Trump more if he ran, the data’s mixed. Rasmussen finds that suburban women are more likely to support the hypothetical third-party candidate than they are Trump(!), an echo of their antipathy to the GOP in the midterms this past November. That’s dire news for Republicans, obviously, but also ominous for Democrats: Without a third-party candidate in the race, they’re the only game in town for those women. With a third-party candidate in the race, suddenly some of those votes are drifting away towards the protest option.

On the other hand, which side sounds like it’s more likely to be damaged by a Schultz run based on this tidbit?

If a third party candidate were to run, most Republicans would like someone with a strong business background and no political experience. Most Democrats would prefer the opposite–a strong political background with no business experience. Independent voters are divided.

Just looking at the topline numbers in Rasmussen’s data and remembering that Clinton got 48 percent to Trump’s 46, it’s obvious that he’s losing a bigger share of his 2016 vote to the hypothetical third-party candidate than the Democrats are.

I think the takeaway for righties is that there actually is a small but meaningful share of Trump-skeptic Republicans who might take a hard look at an independent if one runs. These aren’t dogmatically conservative “Never Trumpers,” they’re more casual voters who don’t watch Fox News or live and breathe politics every day like activists do. Most of them supported Trump in 2016 and (probably?) might again. He needs to win them back or he’s cooked, third-party candidate or no third-party candidate. In fact, the lefty pollster PPP tested Trump in a variety of one-on-one hypothetical races against Democrats a week ago and found him trailing in every one, topping out at around 42 percent of the vote. That’s plausible because 42 percent is right around where his job approval is and has been for months. He needs to build on that somehow, which will be no easy feat: Unlike Obama, his approval has never been consistently above 42-43 percent. If that’s a hard ceiling for him next fall then he really will need a third-party candidate like Schultz in the race to siphon off votes from Democrats and hold them under 43 percent as well.

Here’s Chris Christie, who’s turned surprisingly hostile to the White House lately. Should we, er, make anything of the fact that he hasn’t ruled out another presidential run next year?