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Americans Dislike Trump, Clinton, But Chances Are Slim Of A Third-Party Candidate Rising

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It's the summer before the election. Both major party candidates are really unpopular. Many Americans are in economic pain and dissatisfied with their government. Sound familiar? We're talking about 1992, when at one point some polls had independent candidate Ross Perot ahead of sitting President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. This year, when so many Americans dislike their Democratic and Republican candidates, you might think a third-party candidate could break out. But that hasn't happened. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben joins us to talk about third-party candidates. Thanks so much for being with us, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes, of course.

NEARY: So Ross Perot was a businessman. He had never held office. A lot of people didn't know who he was, and he seemed to come from nowhere. Why did he do so well in 1992?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, you have a couple big things up front. He had a lot of money. Like you said, he was a businessman. He was able to dump tens of millions of dollars into ads, so that certainly helped him. He had a big personality. We all remember him. We can all remember even how he sounded. But aside from that, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush certainly weren't popular. At this point in 1992, voters were very dissatisfied with their choices, about as much as they are today.

Aside from that, you had a really bad economy that worked against George H.W. Bush. That's a lot like today. You had high distrust of government - once again, a lot like today as well. So there are quite a few parallels between '92 and this election.

NEARY: Well, how about this year? Tell us about the third-party candidates this year.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So the two best-known ones are Gary Johnson from the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein from the Green Party. Both of them ran in 2012. And they both seem to be doing better this year than they were back then. Together, both of them ended up with about 1 and a half percent of the vote, a little less, in 2012. Today, when you combine how well they're polling in four-way matchups they get about 10 percent of people's support. So that certainly seems better than back then. But it's not just polling. The Libertarian Party has had a lot more interest this year - they had a televised town hall - and there was a lot more media interest in their convention this year than there was last time.

NEARY: You know, given how unpopular Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are as candidates - I think it's almost unprecedented - it seems like these third-party candidates should be doing better. I mean, what did Ross Perot have that they don't have?

KURTZLEBEN: Right, you'd think so. But you're right, he did have a few things they don't. One very well might be room to run. Bill Clinton was, of course, seen as a centrist. George H.W. Bush had disappointed some conservatives with raising taxes. And so if voters saw them as centrists, that left a lot of room for an outsider to come in, a lot like Perot. This year, there's a lot of polarization in America. You have a lot of people who are choosing Clinton simply because they don't like Trump. You have a lot of people choosing Trump simply because they don't like Clinton. That means you may have a lot of Americans reluctant to pick a third-party candidate simply because they don't want the other guy to get in the White House.

NEARY: And what about the possibility of one of these candidates becoming a spoiler in this election? That's always a concern people have with third-party candidates.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. It's, of course, really hard to say right now how that might play out. Jill Stein very well could peel off some voters on the left. Likewise, it's easy to see how Gary Johnson would peel off some voters on the right. So it's hard to see how those forces would play out. But then again, you don't need that big of a share of the electorate in order to sway an election. A lot of people think Ralph Nader swayed the 2000 election, and he only got around 3 percent of the vote.

NEARY: Some people have never forgiven him for that (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

NEARY: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thanks so much for being with us.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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