This piece was originally published by The Guardian on April 30, 2020.

Justin Amash’s announcement that he is exploring a run for president on the Libertarian party’s ticket set off a firestorm of debate as to whether his candidacy helps or hurts Donald Trump’s re-election prospects.

With paranoia of potential “spoiler” effects running high, Never Trump Republicans worked hard to deter Amash from running and upon his announcement, influencers in the movement like Jennifer RubinBill Kristol and Tom Nichols immediately denounced his candidacy.

Their wariness is well supported by polling data, which shows Biden’s consistent lead over Trump in general election head-to-head polling narrows when an independent or third-party option is included. It is important to recognize that voters respond to generic independent or third-party candidate cues from their own ideological frame of reference: a progressive probably pictures a progressive candidate, a conservative, a conservative one.

It isn’t until these choices solidify into actual candidates and are presented to voters in a context that includes named party nominees that “true” third-party or independent receptivity becomes clear. The “pulling from both sides” issue from generic ballots probably distorts the attractiveness of these types of candidates.

Further complicating matters, current polling still reflects the contested and contentious Democratic party nomination process. It will take some time for Democrats to consolidate around their party’s nominee in rates comparable to Republican consolidation around Trump, which averages 90%. The inclusive head-to-head ballot test as well as nominee enthusiasm are still reflecting after-effects from the primary.

We also know that as the election cycle swings into action and campaign activity kicks in, some voters previously open to third-party candidates “come home”– which is why third-party candidates tend to underperform their polled vote shares. The “coming home” effect also affects independents, most of whom are “leaners”, voters who initially say they’re independent, but when prompted with a follow-up question asking whether they are more closely aligned to one party or the other, admit to having a party preference. These voters almost always end up voting for the candidate of the party they lean towards, which is why it is possible that Biden’s large advantages on the generic ballot until now may be inflated.

In 2016, the Libertarian party pulled voters from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

Johnson’s unabashed admission to pot use endeared him to thousands of younger voters. But Amash holds policy positions that these voters may find unacceptable. His flirtation with climate denialism and stringent anti-abortion positions will probably diminish his attractiveness among the small – but still significant – portion of former Obama voters that voted for Johnson in 2016. Although Amash has tended to vote with Democrats since his exodus from the Republican party, he remains more conservative than 84% of House Republicans in the 116th Congress.

And although a Green party candidacy is more likely, Jesse Ventura’s announcement indicated the Greens as his “first” choice. Amash’s presence in the race all but ensures Ventura would be blocked from running on the Libertarian ticket where due to far broader ballot access, he would have more potential “disruption” power.Advertisement

This means the Libertarian party’s appeal in 2020 will largely hail from voters on the right side of the ideological spectrum. That party leaders have not-so-quietly pushed Amash into running suggests the party’s core membership wants to return to more traditional Libertarian orthodoxies.

In the end, the influence of third-party candidates in the 2020 cycle may be stunted due to the pandemic. Both the Green party and Libertarians currently lack access in critical swing states and the pandemic has severely hampered their ability to gather the petition signatures needed to get on these states’ ballots – leading to court challenges. Although it’s sad that America’s courts have become increasingly politicized, the fact that resistance to their inclusion will now be bipartisan is probably an asset that Democrats wouldn’t have had otherwise.

In the end, an Amash run may help buffer Democrats from what is sure to be a full court press by Trump’s GOP to encourage disaffected Sanders voters to defect from Biden. Trump and key Republicans are working hard to exacerbate tensions between the progressive left and the Democratic National Committee and the Biden campaign, and the party plans a multimillion-dollar misinformation campaign modeled after the Russians’ 2016 efforts. Some GOP state parties have helped finance Green party ballot access in states critical to the presidential and/or Senate contests.

It’s a shrewd strategy, one whose efficacy will probably be influenced significantly by Biden’s choice of running mate. In this regard, an Amash candidacy may serve to inoculate Democrats, because if Amash siphons votes off from the right it could offset what is all but guaranteed to be some defection from progressives. If your party has a “spoiler” candidate, you want your opponent to have one too.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore under CC by 2.0.