With Poll Numbers Stagnant, Stein and Johnson spend big in August

Libertarian White House candidate Gary Johnson had a fundraisinig boomlet in August; he hopes to build poll numbers so he can participate in the second presidential debate. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

By: Jack Noland

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are dominating campaign finance headlines, but documents filed with the FEC Tuesday show the election's most popular third-party candidates, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, have been spending significant shares of their campaign cash bidding for broader electoral support.

The monthly reports also capture two campaigns apparently moving in opposite directions: Johnson's efforts may be paying off in the form of increased contributions, while Stein's fundraising efforts have stuttered.

Over the course of the last month, the Libertarian candidate collected over $4.9 million in contributions, taking his total to date up to $7.9 million. As the Wall Street Journal noted, Johnson's August haul represents the largest single-month fundraising total for a Libertarian presidential candidate since at least 1996. Stein, on the other hand, brought in $882,152 in August, $135,591 less than she was able to raise in July.

Additionally, Stein is the only major presidential candidate who has chosen to opt into the presidential matching funds program, whereby candidates agree to limit expenditures in order to receive federal grants to help fund their campaigns. Thus far, the FEC has allocated $456,035 to Stein's campaign, including $213,181 in August. By taking the money, Stein must cap her spending both nationally and in each state at a level pegged to its voting age population, though she has not come anywhere close to hitting the limit. (Major party candidates who accept federal funds cannot accept private contributions in the general election, but minor party candidates, like Stein, are not bound by that restriction.)

The current RealClearPolitics presidential polling average has Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, at 8.6 percent and Stein at 3.0 percent - roughly where the candidates have floated for the past few months. At the time of writing, FiveThirtyEight pegs the Libertarian's support slightly lower, at 7.9 percent, in its polls-only forecasting model.

While both seek the requisite 15 percent polling average in order to qualify for the presidential debates, Johnson has only ever reached 13 percent, most recently in a Quinnipiac poll taken earlier this month, while Stein topped out at 7 percent in a June CNN/ORC poll.

Johnson and Stein served as their parties' nominees in the 2012 contest, too. They may well be better campaigners this time around: In terms of fundraising, the two have already eclipsed their 2012 hauls. Johnson, who won 0.99 percent of the popular vote, took in $2.3 million last cycle, while Stein raised just $893,636.

Both candidates spent more in August 2016 than they did during the entirety of the 2012 campaign. Johnson's expenditures totaled $3.7 million, taking his cash-on-hand levels to roughly $2.5 million overall. Stein finished the month with just $153,732 left in her account, having spent $1.15 million.

The candidates' expenditures speak volumes about the shifting presidential campaigning process. Both spent relatively heavily on Facebook advertisements - $250,132 from Johnson and $120,762 from Stein, making up more than 10 percent of her August disbursements. The candidates spent a combined $46,234 on Google advertisements.

Stein also focused her outlays on getting her name on the ballot in as many states as possible. Her August records show an aggregate $366,252 spent on ballot access coordination, petitioning and fees, making up roughly 32 percent of her disbursements. She's been largely successful on that front. Stein will appear on the November ballot in 44 states, and voters in Indiana, North Carolina and Georgia will be able to write in the Green Party candidate if so inclined.

On the other side, a hefty 49 percent of Johnson's August disbursements, or more than $1.8 million, went to one firm: Evan Twede, Inc. The advertising agency, based in Utah, does not appear to have an online presence other than an unofficial Facebook page, though it did render $107,950 worth of services in 2014 to former congressional candidate Morgan Philpot. Johnson also paid $550,000 to Liberty Consulting in August.

An advertising push brings broader exposure and, ideally, wider support. Since both candidates will be on the ballot in enough states to theoretically win a majority in the Electoral College, Johnson and Stein would need to receive an average of 15 percent or higher from five national polling organizations to qualify for the second round of debates (both missed the cut for the first presidential and sole vice presidential debate). Appearing on stage with Clinton and Trump would go a long way toward elevating either campaign.

The next round of monthly campaign finance reports is due Oct. 20, 19 days before the election.