Tony Keller is The Globe and Mail's editorial page editor.
In 2000, the U.S. presidential election was decided by the slimmest of margins: just 537 votes. In Florida, that was the difference between the number of ballots cast for George W. Bush, who won the state and became president, and Al Gore, who did not.
What else happened in the Sunshine State in 2000? Ralph Nader got 97,488 votes. If just a tiny fraction of those people had instead sided with Mr. Gore, the second choice of most Nader supporters, Mr. Bush would have lost.
Sometimes, every vote really does count. And sometimes, voting for a small protest candidate delivers a big impact. This could be one of those years.
The latest polls show Hillary Clinton, who had been steadily losing ground to Donald Trump, enjoying a significant bump from a successful Democratic National Convention. But the polls also reveal some unexpected news that could be a problem for both campaigns: When voters are given the option of choosing someone other than Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton, a surprisingly large number say they support Gary Johnson, leader of the Libertarian Party.
The former governor of New Mexico will never be president. But he could be this year's Ralph Nader. The most recent Economist/YouGov poll has Mr. Johnson at 8 per cent national support. The latest surveys from NBC News and CNN each have him at 9 per cent. CBS News puts him at 10 per cent.
The election is still months away, and answering a pollster is not the same thing as casting a ballot. A lot of this support could evaporate as summer turns to fall, and voters learn more about Mr. Johnson, or start thinking about voting strategically – otherwise known as supporting the mainstream candidate they dislike the least.
But this has been a year when angry people have been willing to do radical things, which is how Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ended up, improbably, at centre stage. As the result of Mr. Trump's nomination, many Republicans are talking about voting for someone – anyone – else. It's also happening on the left: Mr. Sanders's most ardent backers spent four days heckling Ms. Clinton at the Democratic convention, even as she tried to woo them by giving her platform a Bernie-inspired rewrite.
Intuitively, one would think that if Mr. Johnson takes supporters from anyone, it would be Mr. Trump, because libertarians have usually been more at home among Republicans than Democrats. But several recent polls suggest Mr. Johnson may be eating more into Ms. Clinton's support than Mr. Trump's. For example, when a CBS poll released last week asked people to choose between the two, she was ahead among decided voters by 47 per cent to 41 per cent. But when Mr. Johnson was listed as an option, 10 per cent of people said they supported him – and Ms. Clinton's standing fell by more than Mr. Trump's.
Some states are safely Republican or Democratic, which means that even large voter turnouts for protest candidates won't change the result. But swing states are another story. In Missouri, the latest poll from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has Ms. Clinton leading Mr. Trump by just one percentage point, with Mr. Johnson polling at 9 per cent. In Pennsylvania, a Public Policy Polling survey released Monday has Ms. Clinton leading Mr. Trump by three points, with Mr. Johnson pulling 4 per cent, and Jill Stein of the Green Party (often mentioned as a destination for Sanders diehards) – at 2 per cent. In Nevada, Ms. Clinton has a one point lead over Mr. Trump, with Mr. Johnson at 10 per cent.
If enough voters remain frustrated with the two mainstream choices, Mr. Johnson could shake up the electoral math. His platform offers something for the disaffected in both camps: He likes smaller government, lower taxes, gun rights and free trade – all traditional Republican favourites. But he also backs marijuana legalization, shrinking U.S. military spending, abortion rights, more immigration and fewer people in prison. Those ideas usually please Democrats.
Mr. Trump may yet see his support collapse. This week, he's been doing an excellent impersonation of a candidate having a campaign meltdown, and if this continues, the issue of third-party contenders will be moot. But with three months to go before election day, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump still have one thing in common: record-high unfavourability ratings. That's why more than a handful of Americans are apparently considering voting for someone representing "none of the above."