Could the Libertarian Party emerge as a real force in the presidential election this fall?
The latest CBS News poll of the 2016 general election finds Hillary Clinton maintaining a steady lead over Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup, 43 to 37 percent. If Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson is added to the mix, however, he draws support from 11 percent of respondents nationwide. And the three-way race slightly increases Clinton's lead over Trump - 39 to 32 percent.
The sizable contingent backing Johnson, a popular former Republican governor of New Mexico, also appears in other recent polls. A Bloomberg poll this week found Johnson drawing nine percent support in a three-way race, with Clinton at 49 and Trump at 37 percent. And a Fox News poll released last week found Johnson at 12 percent, Clinton at 39 and Trump at 36.
It's not clear whether Johnson would help Trump or Clinton more - the CBS poll, as mentioned before, found Clinton's lead slightly widening when Johnson is added to the mix. But Bloomberg found the opposite - that Clinton's lead is actually bigger when Johnson is removed from the equation - while Clinton's lead in the Fox poll was the same with or without Johnson.
Few believe that Johnson himself will become a viable contender for the presidency. But given the relative dissatisfaction with the major party nominees - Trump and Clinton have the worst and second-worst favorability numbers of any major nominees in modern history, respectively - Johnson may be able to nab enough voters to affect the outcome of the election.
The most successful third-party presidential bid in modern American history came in 1992, when Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran as an independent and won nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. Since that high water-mark, candidates running outside the two-party system have struggled to gain a foothold - Perot ran on the Reform ticket in 1996, but he won only eight percent of the vote. Ralph Nader, as the presidential nominee of the Green Party in 2000, won less than three percent of the national vote. Still, many believe Nader's showing was still enough to swing the race in favor of the Republican nominee, George W. Bush.
Also arguing in favor of a robust showing: The libertarian ticket this year carries some stature that has perhaps been lacking from previous third-party bids. Joining Johnson on the ticket is William Weld, the former GOP governor of Massachusetts. The hope among Libertarians is that the presence of two respected conservative chief executives on the ballot will draw both GOP voters repulsed by Trump and moderate Democrats unhappy with their party's leftward tilt.
We won't know how successful they were in that aim until November. But at this early stage, there's ample reason to believe the Libertarian Ticket will turn in the strongest general election performance of any third party in decades.