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Opinion Don’t pretend to know how Justin Amash’s run will affect the election

Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) speaks with constituents at Rising Grinds Cafe in Grand Rapids on Aug. 21. (Evan Cobb for The Washington Post)
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On Tuesday, Republican-turned-independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan announced that he’s exploring a presidential run as a Libertarian — and Democrats and NeverTrump conservatives across the country freaked out. The logic behind the panic attack? Amash will grab Trump-skeptical former Republicans who might otherwise vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden and allow President Trump to once again squeak to victory in the electoral college.

But the Democratic Panic Caucus is getting way ahead of itself. Amash could play spoiler, but conditions would have to be just right. Amash doesn’t have much support now, and likely won’t on Election Day — so the race would have to be very close for him to make a difference. And Amash could just as easily become a problem for the Trump campaign.

There isn’t much survey data to suggest how voters feel about Amash as a presidential candidate, but the few polls we have don’t look great for him. According to CNN’s Harry Enten, he’s getting roughly 2 percent of the vote nationally. It’s true that Amash seems to be taking slightly more votes from Biden than Trump: A 2019 Michigan poll showed Biden’s statewide margin drop from 12 points to 6 points when Amash was included. A national poll from the Democratic firm GQR showed Amash pulling in slightly more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 7 percent to 4 percent. Overall, Amash is not taking much support from either major party candidate, and he certainly hasn’t spoiled the election for Biden simply by entering the fray.

Those percentages may seem significant, but the historical data suggest we shouldn’t put too much stock in them. Amash may be able to gain steam in the short-to-medium term as voters get to know him, and he could win converts as Trump and Biden make mistakes and shed supporters. But over time, third-party candidates tend to lose momentum rather than revving up. As the election gets closer, Americans retreat into their partisan camps and remember that they don’t like “wasting” votes on candidates who can’t win — something that may be doubly true for Democrats after four years of the Trump administration.

In early May, the Fix’s Natalie Jennings analyzed how an Independent campaign from Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) could have impacted the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

If Amash follows this long-term trajectory, he probably won’t have enough votes to swing the race to either candidate. The panickers need to remember that Biden is starting the general election phase of this race in a strong position: He’s ahead by six points nationally and is ahead in almost every swing state. If Biden stays the course as Trump bungles the coronavirus crisis — or if Trump makes big gains as the economy reopens — Amash could easily become a non-factor, regardless of who he’s damaging more.

Even if the race is close and Amash can swing it, he may end up hurting Trump rather than Biden. Suppose Trump continues to botch this crisis and steers us into a preventable depression. His approval rating might drop, as it often does when he mismanages policy problems, and some of his reluctant supporters might start looking for alternatives. In a simple Trump-Biden matchup, they’d probably come back to Trump rather than vote for a Democrat. But if it’s Trump vs. Biden vs. Amash, some wayward Republicans could drift to the conservative lawmaker instead, hoping to register a mild protest rather than a complete break with their party. The number of defectors would likely be small, but in a close election, it could be enough.

Read the latest edition of the 2020 Post Pundit Power Ranking

The Democratic nightmare scenario — Amash takes away just enough Biden votes in a few key states to hand Trump a second term — still could come to pass. But it’s one of many possibilities, and there’s little proof that Democrats should worry about it more than other circumstances in which Biden fades and Trump stages a resurgence.

If high-quality polls consistently show Amash taking a large chunk of the vote from Biden, and those numbers hold up as Election Day gets closer and the race looks close, then Democrats will have permission to get angsty. But, until then, they shouldn’t pretend to know how Amash will (or won’t) change this race. Democrats have six months left to elect Joe Biden. They should spend it on more productive pastimes than panicking.

Read more:

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