POLITICS
06/01/2016 04:57 pm ET

Voters Have No Idea Who Gary Johnson Is

In a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, most voters say they've never heard of the candidate, let alone his positions.
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson looks on during the party's National Convention held at the Rosen Cente
Kevin Kolczynski/Reuters
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson looks on during the party's National Convention held at the Rosen Center in Orlando, Florida, last weekend.

In a presidential race between two historically disliked major party candidates, there's a certain cachet to being merely the other guy.

The leading contender to be that guy? Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. He's the Libertarian Party nominee, a bicycling enthusiast and, with little time left for any new entrants to the race, perhaps this year's de facto alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Recent national polls with his name thrown into the mix show him polling as high as 10 percent, pulling equally from both sides of the aisle. That's not enough to get him into the presidential debates, let alone establish him as a serious contender. But it marks a significant improvement from his run in 2012, when a June Gallup survey showed him at just 2 percent, and he went on to win under 1 percent of the popular vote.

Gauging support for candidates like Johnson is tricky. Polls that include third-party candidates by name tend to overstate support for them, according to an analysis of 2014 surveys, while those that don't ask about third-party candidates end up underestimating their vote share. Voters' eagerness for an alternative often functions more as a statement of dissatisfaction than a serious commitment to buck the two-party system -- especially in the case of polls pitting a nameless "independent" candidate against Clinton and Trump.

Unlike David French, the conservative writer supported by Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Johnson is likely to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. And unlike the shapeless counterpoint of an "other" option, Johnson is a real person, with an actual record and policy positions.

But, as a new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows, Johnson's relative anonymity means that he isn't yet much different from a generic alternative, with even those voters who know who he is largely unsure about his political beliefs.

Voters who have heard of Johnson are split in their opinions of him, with 35 percent rating him favorably, 36 rating him unfavorably and the remainder unsure.

They're equally divided in their perceptions of his ideology: 22 percent consider him very or somewhat liberal, while 26 percent consider him a moderate, 30 percent believe him to be conservative and the remainder won't even hazard a guess.

Part of the confusion may be that libertarian ideology maps imperfectly onto a standard liberal-to-conservative ideological spectrum. Part may also be intentional on the part of the candidate, who's recently claimed that "73 percent of what Bernie [Sanders] says I agree with" while positioning himself as a fiscally conservative alternative to Trump. But the unsureness about Johnson contrasts sharply with voters' clear, if unfavorable, impressions of Clinton and Trump, both of whom have nearly universal name recognition.

And that's among those who have even heard of Johnson, which is only about a third of those surveyed. The other 66 percent didn’t even recognize his name, or weren't sure whether they'd heard of him.

Combining those groups shows just how few voters have a substantive impression of Johnson:

About 12 percent of voters who have heard of Johnson -- about 4 percent of the potential electorate as a whole -- say they're very or somewhat likely to vote for him.

Given how little is known about him, much of that support right now is likely a statement of protest against the major party candidates. Whether that will translate into a protest vote in November remains an open question.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted May 25-26 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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