Poll: Justin Amash presidential bid would ... help Trump against Biden?

The old conventional wisdom: Amash could be the Ralph Nader to Trump’s Al Gore

The new conventional wisdom: Amash could be the Ralph Nader to Joe Biden’s Al Gore.

The result of this Detroit News poll is more intuitive than it seems at first glance. Amash and Trump are a little closer to each other ideologically (see, e.g., taxes) than Amash and Biden are, but ideology isn’t the lodestar for many voters — especially when an incumbent president is on the ballot. For some, the choice will be “Four more years of Trump or four years of someone else?” If Biden’s the only other person on the ballot, he’s “someone else” by default. If Amash is on the ballot, Biden has competition.

Essentially, instead of Trump and Amash splitting the Republican vote, Biden and Amash end up splitting the “Anyone But Trump” vote.

Amash, who represents the Grand Rapids area in Congress, basically reduces Biden’s lead if he’s on the ballot: In a traditional head-to-head match-up, Biden led Trump by 12 percentage points, but the lead narrows to 6 percentage points when Amash is included in the field.

“This is, frankly, a somewhat startling finding. I think conventional wisdom would say he would hurt President Trump by taking away Republican votes,” said Richard Czuba, who conducted the poll for the Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

“He will not take away Republican votes from Trump. What he will do is give independent voters who don’t want to support President Trump an outlet to not vote for the Democrat. And if you look at who or what would be moving toward Amash, it is particularly independent men.”

Without Amash in the race, Biden leads Trump among independents by 16 points(!). With Amash in the race, it’s a dead heat. It’s not Never Trump Republicans whom he’s vacuuming up, in other words, it’s people who have already left the party (or were never in it in the first place) who are looking to cast an anti-Trump ballot one way or another. There are a lot of them among Michigan independents, it appears.

Which makes me wonder what would happen if Amash passed on the race and instead Biden was challenged by a Jill-Stein-type from the left. Would replacing a right-wing contender for the “Anyone But Trump” vote with a left-wing one hurt Biden the same way? My gut says no, for two reasons. One: Poll after poll shows that Democrats value electability over all else this cycle, so eager are they to beat Trump. They remember the Gore/Nader episode well. However much progressive Democrats and independents disdain Biden, I think they’d be more reluctant to vote Green Party in 2020 knowing how Trump would benefit than right-leaning independents would be to cast a protest vote for Amash. Two: Amash’s libertarianism should appeal to a wider range of left and right than Stein’s hard-leftism. If you’re a right-leaning Michigan independent looking for a third-party option, you might conclude that you simply have nothing in common with Stein ideologically and grudgingly vote for Biden instead. If you’re a left-leaning independent looking for a third-party option, you’re bound to find some things to like about Amash — strong opposition to the surveillance state, a more relaxed view of immigration, and of course a willingness to impeach Trump.

That is to say, conceivably an Amash candidacy is a bigger threat to Biden than a Green Party candidacy. At least in Michigan.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees in this poll, though. While Amash’s effect on the race is interesting, the big takeaway is that Biden is leading Trump fairly comfortably with or without the third-party libertarian on the ballot. In a two-man race, Biden’s running away with it by 12 points. Michigan isn’t an absolute must-win for Trump next year but if you take it off the board — and assume that it portends general weakness in the Rust Belt for POTUS — suddenly things begin to get anxious. His job approval in Michigan is 44/52 here; in Morning Consult’s latest survey of Trump’s job approval in Michigan, it’s 42/54. In Wisconsin it’s 42/55 and in Pennsylvania it’s 45/52. There’s a reason why Trump is worried about Joe from Scranton more than any other Democrat.