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Political operatives on both sides of the aisle are closely watching a handful of contests on the presidential, Senate and House levels, bracing for the possibility that a third-party candidate could prove to be a spoiler.
The person whose name comes up most often in these conversations is an obscure former Member, Virginia conservative Virgil Goode. Goode is running for president and has positioned himself to the right of GOP nominee Mitt Romney on fiscal and immigration issues. He is hardly a household name, but the presidential contest in Virginia could come down to a handful of votes. If Goode is able to pull even a few away from Romney, he could be the Republican Party’s Ralph Nader.
“Third-party candidates are an important aspect of individual races every cycle but you cannot predict or make a blanket statement about the way they will play out,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg said. “It is very individualized.“
At times, Goode sounds a lot like Nader did in 2000, when he charged that there was no difference between the two major parties and was credited with siphoning the support of enough Democratic-minded voters in key states such as Florida to keep Vice President Al Gore out of the White House.
“It doesn’t matter whether Romney or [President Barack] Obama is elected,” Goode said in an interview about whether he would push Virginia into Obama’s column. “There’s not much difference between them.”
Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson has a broader appeal than Goode, but Goode’s small home base in Virginia could prove more consequential.
Downballot, there can be a black hole of information. Polling a third-party candidate can actually boost name identification and overemphasize the candidate’s relevance to a campaign.
“One of the difficulties in polling in races with third-party candidates is that putting them on a poll question gives them more prominence than they usually have in real life,” Democratic pollster Fred Yang said. “And so you’re always weighing how real are these numbers for third-party candidates given there is always a margin of error with every question.”
But because third-party candidates’ numbers are often so low, the margin of error can be deceiving. For instance, if a third-party candidate is polling at 5 percent in an internal poll with a margin of error of 4 points, the candidate could actually be polling as low as 1 percent.
So campaigns will often perform two types of polls — exactly as the ballot will read, and with just the two major party candidates.