The presidential election could well turn on a factor that has gotten virtually no discussion this year - the votes drawn by Libertarian Bob Barr, Green Cynthia McKinney and independent Ralph Nader.
The most recent polls show a race too tight to call: Gallup tracking from Sept. 23 showed Barack Obama up only three points with 47 percent to John McCain's 44 percent. More interesting is a CNN/Opinion Research poll released Sept. 22 that includes all five candidates for president. McCain is at 45 percent, Obama is at 48 percent, and Barr, McKinney and Nader are polling a combined 6 percent of the vote. (Nader captured 4 percent and Barr and McKinney each got 1 percent.) In a close contest, the support for any of these three could well decide which major party comes out ahead nationally and in key swing states.
Indeed, the most recent state polling from CNN/Opinion Research to include third-party candidates bears this point out. Taken earlier this month, the poll found that in Missouri, where McCain had a four-point lead, Nader had 3 percent and Barr had 2 percent. In New Hampshire, where Obama had a five-point lead, 48 percent to McCain's 43 percent, Nader had 4 percent and Barr had 2 percent. In Michigan, where Obama led McCain by only two points, Nader has 6 percent and Barr 2 percent.
Other polls suggest an even more dramatic situation brewing with Barr, McCain's biggest third-party concern. Zogby International polls last month showed Barr approaching 11 percent in New Hampshire, 10 percent in Nevada and 8 percent in Ohio.
What accounts for such levels of support?
Most important, there is widespread - and growing - dissatisfaction with the major parties in America. Even the initial rise of Obama was in large part attributable to frustration with the political system and response to his call for a nonpartisan outsider to change Washington. McCain's ongoing resurgence similarly can be attributed, at least in part, to his return to the maverick reformer message of his 2000 campaign. Even the popularity of his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, at its very core stems from a desire for new faces, new ideas and alternatives.
However, Obama has had to go negative, McCain has flip-flopped time and again from the maverick of old to the GOP's status quo, and the Palin effect is wearing off as the governor's politics appear to be no different from those inside the Beltway. Disenchanted voters are not fooled for long by rhetoric. As the major-party candidates show their true colors, many of these voters will start turning toward third-party alternatives.
There's also a wild card: Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who sought the GOP nomination and has continued to attract fervent supporters to his "Campaign for Liberty" attacking big government and the two-party system. After months of bickering with the Libertarian Barr, last week he threw his support behind yet another alternative party candidate, Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party. With Barr having raised nearly $1 million and becoming a growing presence in many states, adding a Paul-supported Baldwin to the mix could be disastrous for McCain, who could lose votes to both alternative candidates.
A third-party candidate in an election this close doesn't need double-digit support to be a spoiler. History has shown that third-party candidates can gain a large percentage, as in the case of Ross Perot, who reached close to 20 percent of the vote in 1992, and George Wallace, who almost gained 14 percent of the vote in 1968. But neither of those had the impact of Nader's single-digit percentage in the 2000 election. Nader's 90,000 votes in Florida were a crucial factor in an election that came down to George W. Bush's victory in Florida by slightly more than 500 votes.
To be clear, this election is coming down to the wire, as it did in 2000, making real the possibility of a third-party spoiler tipping the election one way or the other. As the polls stand now, with Obama holding slight leads nationally and in many swing states, Nader's 4 percent could siphon off enough votes to thrust McCain into the White House. That said, if Barr steals 8 percent of the Ohio vote from McCain, Obama will almost certainly win the presidency.
So in the waning days of the election, it's not the biggest poll percentages that demand scrutiny, but the smallest ones. Because it could turn out that the crucial role in the 2008 election will be played by a candidate no one is talking about.
Douglas E. Schoen, a pollster, is the author of "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System." He was an adviser to President Clinton from 1994 to 2000.