Poll: Independent candidate would hurt Democrats in 2020

graphic of ballot box

Five times as many voters would defect from the Democratic nominee to an independent presidential candidate in 2020 as would abandon Donald Trump for an independent, according to a national survey of likely voters by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

The new Wason Center poll asked likely voters their preference in a head-to-head race between Trump and a generic Democrat, and then asked their preference if the ballot included an independent candidate. In the two-way race, voters preferred the Democrat by 11 points, 48% to 37%, well outside the survey’s +/-3.2% margin of error. But in the three-way race, 16% of voters chose the independent, putting Trump (34%) and the generic Democrat (32%) into a statistical tie.


The key to that dramatic change is the difference in defection rate, as the Democrat loses 5 voters to the independent candidate for every one Trump loses (16 points vs. 3 points).

“The Democrats’ visceral reaction to a potential Howard Schultz run doesn’t look like an overreaction,” said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center. “A five-to-one defection rate is cause for alarm.”

Further analysis revealed that 45% of the “defectors” self-identify or lean Democratic, compared with 31% Republican and 19% independent. Fully 77% describe their political ideology as “moderate.”

The Wason Center poll suggests that an independent candidate who campaigns in 2020 in hopes of denying President Trump a second term is likely to split the opposition vote in close states and tip the Electoral College to Trump. Every state except Maine uses a “winner take all” system. While 16% is substantial, it takes more than 33% to carry those states’ electoral votes.

“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 Wason Center conducted 1,001 interviews, including 670 on cell phone and 331 on landline, Feb. 3-17.



About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.