The Chicago Tribune

Are voters warming to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? They are not. A look at a national poll from Quinnipiac University provides a snapshot of the race and the dour narrative fueling it: a majority of voters don’t like either candidate. Respondents think Clinton is smart (87 percent) and has the right experience to be president (71 percent), but she’s dishonest (66 percent). And Trump? He’s not level-headed (71 percent) and lacks appropriate experience (65 percent).

In other words, one’s seen as dishonest, the other’s a hothead. Negatives like those make one wonder if Americans would consider supporting an alternative candidate. Quinnipiac asked that question and found that yes, 37 percent would consider voting for a third-party candidate, even though they know little about the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson or the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

The best opportunity to begin hearing from one of those alternative candidates would be on Sept. 26, the first presidential debate. With Johnson ahead of Stein (he runs as high as 10 or 11 percent in some polls, compared with Stein’s 3 or 4 percent), Quinnipiac asked if he should be included in the presidential debates: 62 percent, nearly two-thirds of respondents, said yes, Johnson should participate.

So, a recap of voter sentiment: With Clinton and Trump competing in a race that looks too much like an ugly baby contest, a lot of Americans would like the chance to take a closer look at Gary Johnson in particular.

What they would find is an outsider candidate, but not a political extremist. In some ways he’s a more centrist voice than either the Republican or the Democrat in the field: a former two-term Republican governor from New Mexico, Johnson is liberal on social issues and conservative on money issues. Running with another Republican former governor, William Weld of Massachusetts, Johnson’s positions (in support of immigration reform and a balanced budget, for example) make him look a little like that endangered species, the moderate Republican. American voters would benefit from hearing his views.

The hurdle in Johnson’s way is the terms set by the private, nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. The group says that to participate a candidate will need to hit an average 15 percent support level in five national polls before late September. Johnson is at 10 percent in a secondary question contained in the Quinnipiac poll results. But if pollsters acknowledged voter dissatisfaction and began treating the 2016 election as a real three-way race, it seems certain the Libertarian Party candidate would get past the 15 percent mark right away, even as a still-relative-unknown.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, pollster Ron Faucheux sees another path to opening up the race. He proposes adopting a tiered system that would include in the first debate all third party candidates with at least 3 percent support. Then he’d raise the threshold to 15 percent for the two remaining debates. That would give Americans an opportunity to hear from the alternative parties on Sept. 26, and would give those candidates a shot at winning broader support from a hungry electorate.

While Faucheux appears willing to allow both Johnson and Stein to debate, Johnson has the most likely route to becoming more than a fringe candidate — which is why we’ve focused on his chances. He has said he hopes to pick off enough electoral votes to keep either Clinton or Trump from getting the necessary 270.

That would move the race to the House of Representatives, where Johnson could be the compromise winner. But with the major-party candidates so reprehensible to so many voters, Johnson said on “Fox News Sunday” that his objective is to win outright. That’s a stretch, but still:

If the Republicans were willing to hear from 10 candidates at the first primary debate last summer (with seven more appearing at a prior forum), then let’s respect the wishes of a dissatisfied electorate and open up the first general election debate to Johnson. Once on that stage, it will be on him to make his mark.

This column appeared in The Chicago Tribune. Send comments to