Independent Candidate May Have Significant Impact on Democratic Party's Electoral Fortunes in 2020 Election - The Wason Center - Christopher Newport University

February 26, 2019

Independent Candidate May Have Significant Impact on Democratic Party's Electoral Fortunes in 2020 Election

"Independent on the 2020 ballot would hurt Democrat five times as much as it would hurt President Trump."

Summary of Key Findings

  1. Having an Independent candidate in the 2020 presidential race dramatically improves President Donald Trump's chances of reelection.
  2. In a head-to-head match-up of the 2020 general election, Trump trails a generic Democratic Party nominee among likely voters by 11 points, 37% to 48%, with 9% of voters undecided.
  3. With an Independent in the race, the election becomes a statistical tie between Trump and his Democratic Party rival, 34% to 32%, with 16% going to the Independent and 16% undecided.
  4. An analysis of voters who selected the Independent option after initially selecting Trump of the generic Democrat reveals that for every voter Trump loses, the Democrat loses 5.


Ever since former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that he is considering making an Independent bid for the presidency, there has been intense interest in how having an Independent on the 2020 ballot might impact the contest between Republican President Donald Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee. The Wason Center survey of likely 2020 voters shows that, in a conventional two-party race, the Democratic Party nominee holds an 11-point advantage over Trump, 48%-37%, well outside the +/-3.2 margin of error. However, when respondents are offered the option of an Independent candidate, a far different picture emerges. Under this scenario, the race becomes a statistical tie between Trump (34%) and the Democrat (32%). Fully 16% of likely voters indicate they would vote for the Independent candidate and another 16% report being undecided -- up from 9% in the two-way contest.

The key to that dramatic change is the difference in defection rate, as the Democratic nominee loses a disproportionate number of voters to the Independent candidate. Among voters who initially select either Trump of the Democrat but select the Independent when presented that option in a follow-up question, the Democrat loses fives times more voters than Trump (16 points vs. 3 points). That is, for every voter who switches from Donald Trump to the Independent, five voters switch from the Democrat to the Independent.

"Examining these data, the Democrats' visceral reaction to a potential Schultz run doesn't look like an overreaction," said Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center. "A five-to-one defection rate is cause for alarm."

Analysis of these "defectors" reveals that a plurality, 39%, self-identify as Independents under a "soft screen" for partisanship. But under a "hard screen," where voters who indicate that they are Independents are then asked if they lean towards one party or another, defectors are 45% Democrat, 31% Republican, and 19% Independent. This, too, suggests that the appetite for an Independent candidate is greater among Democrats. The vast majority of defectors (77%) describe their ideology as "moderate."

These data suggest that if an Independent candidate campaigns in 2020 in hopes of denying President Trump a second term, the likelihood of a "spoiler effect" will be quite high. By splitting the opposition vote in close states, the Independent could tip the Electoral College to Trump. Every state but Maine uses a winner-take-all system, in which all Electoral College votes go to the candidate who earns the highest percentage of the state's popular vote. For an Independent to win 16% would be substantial, but in a three-way race, the winner would need more than 33% of a state's popular vote to carry its Electoral College votes. George Wallace was the last third-party candidate to do that when he carried five Deep South states in 1968. Ross Perot, the most popular third-party candidate in the modern era, won 19% of the popular vote in 1992 but didn't carry a single state or a single Electoral College vote.

"These are strange times, but history suggests that spoiler is the most likely role a third-party candidate will play in 2020," said Wason Center director Quentin Kidd.



The results of this poll are based on 1,001 interviews of likely voters randomly selected from the national voter file via a registered sampling vendor, including 331 on landline and 670 on cell phone, conducted February 3-17, 2019. Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding. The margin of error for the whole survey is +/- 3.2 at the 95% level of confidence. This means that if 50% of respondents indicate a topline view on an issue, we can be 95% confident that the population's view on that issue is somewhere between 46.8% and 53.2%. The margin of error is higher for subgroups. All error margins have been adjusted to account for the survey's design effect, which is 1.1 in this survey. The design effect is a factor representing the survey's deviation from a simple random sample and takes into account decreases in precision due to sample design and weighting procedures. Sub-samples have a higher margin of error. In addition to sampling error, the other potential sources of error include non-response, question wording, and interviewer error. The response rate (AAPOR RRI Standard Definition) for the survey was 17%. Five callbacks were employed in the fielding process. Live calling was conducted by trained interviewers at the Wason Center for Public Policy Survey Research Lab at Christopher Newport University. The data reported here are weighted using an iterative weighting process on age*, race, sex, education, region, and population density to reflect as closely as possible the population of registered voters in the United States as anticipated for the 2020 election.

For further information contact:

Dr. Quentin Kidd, Director
Office: (757) 594-8499
Mobile: (757) 775-6932

Dr. Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, Research Lab Director
Office: (757) 594-9140

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