Could a third party break through in 2016?

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    Third party candidates can have huge impact

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Story highlights

  • Lara Brown: Trump and Clinton have such low favorability ratings that voters could start casting about for other options
  • Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could garner enough support to make Trump a truly historical loser

Lara M. Brown is associate professor and interim director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. She is the author of 'Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants.' The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)The news that Donald Trump is changing up his campaign team suggests the Republican nominee wants to keep pressing his reality-show style presidential run, complete with angry populist tone and wildly contradictory issue positions.

The move is great news for Hillary Clinton's campaign, which has been buoyed in the polls by Trump's unwillingness to pivot and penchant for stirring up controversies, especially since the Democratic National Convention. But could there be other -- perhaps surprising -- beneficiaries?
    Lara Brown
    No doubt the Green Party, which will be taking part in its prime-time town hall Wednesday night, will be keen to exploit the high negatives of Trump and Clinton to generate support. But more significantly, the Libertarian Party, led by Gary Johnson, is likely to benefit from a shift in support from small government, liberty-loving conservatives as well as conscience-stricken Republican partisans looking for another excuse to break with their party's nominee.
    There's certainly historical precedent for a nontrivial shift away from the major parties when the public is fed up with politics and dissatisfied with their choices. Back in 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt, after having lost the Republican nomination to incumbent President William Taft, ran as the nominee of the Progressive Party. The two candidates ended up splitting the Republican electorate, with 27% siding with Roosevelt and 23% siding with Taft.
    Roosevelt's second-place showing fundamentally changed American politics -- and could ironically give some hope to Republicans today who are currently worried about the direction of their party.
    As the University of Virginia's Miller Center notes, Roosevelt's successful campaign "challenged the conservative wing of the Republican Party and left it discredited." Even more important, Woodrow Wilson, who had won the presidency but earned less than 42% of the vote, knew that if he was to have a chance in his 1916 re-election bid, he would need to adopt (thereby, co-opting) much of Roosevelt's "New Nationalist" platform.
    Fast forward to today, and it seems possible that Trump will be seen as a throwback candidate, like Taft, instead of a harbinger of the future, like Roosevelt. If that happened, and if enough "conscience-Republicans" broke for the Libertarians, it would actually leave the Republicans in a much better place from which to rebuild their party than would a close Trump loss, something that would likely only reinforce the notion among his supporters that politics is "rigged."
    Yes, it's an unlikely scenario. But there are four things that could make it more possible -- two things that would need to stay constant, and two things that would need to change.
    The constants:
    -- Trump must keep to his word that he won't change;
    -- The public must believe, as the majority do, that Clinton will win the presidency.
    The changes:
    -- More Republicans start to fear being sunk by a dump-Trump, anti-GOP wave and they begin campaigning against him to further distance themselves from his candidacy;
    -- Johnson starts spending more money, holding more events and rising in the polls, so that he might have a shot of being included in the fall presidential debates.
    So, is any of this likely to happen?
    Sadly for the Libertarian Party -- and the Green Party, too -- the results are more likely to look like business as usual. After all, one reason third party and independent candidates so often fail in their presidential bids is that they can't get enough elected officials to believe that they aren't wasting political opportunity by affiliating with them. Similarly, they can't get citizens to believe that they aren't wasting their votes by backing one of the non-main parties.
    Of course, it could be different this time -- Trump and Clinton have such historically low favorability ratings that voters really could start casting about for other options as the campaigns enter the homestretch. Also, media outlets could decide that the unchanging (and largely negative) nature of the two-party presidential contest is making for boring news programming, which could encourage more coverage of third-party candidates in an effort to win back the viewers increasingly turned off by the train wreck that is this election.
    In practice that could mean networks like CNN expanding their coverage of the third parties outside of the slower news cycle days of the summer -- greater media interest in September and October could help the Green and Libertarian parties be more relevant in the presidential vote.
    At the end of the day, the most-likely effect of the candidacies of Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein is that they will keep the winner from obtaining a majority of the national popular, in turn weakening the winner's claim of a governing mandate. But looking farther ahead, Johnson could garner enough support to make Trump a truly historical loser.