This November has all the ingredients to be a better-than-usual election cycle for third-party candidates in Minnesota.

President Joe Biden's poll numbers are sagging as he struggles to hold together the coalition that elected him four years ago. Former President Donald Trump is rallying the conservative base but his felony convictions are turning off some independents. Many voters are unexcited about the prospect of voting for either candidate.

Plus, Minnesota has been here before.

"I did vote for Jesse Ventura ... it wasn't that big of a leap for me," said Mark Frascone, a 65-year-old Eagan resident and longtime Democrat who is supporting independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. this fall. "Right now there's a big legal slugfest between the two major parties with the indictments and trials. I don't know that people are going to want to keep voting for that."

Third-party candidates have the potential to draw voters away from both presumptive major party nominees, but the campaign of Kennedy and others have gotten the most pushback from Democrats, who fear they'll siphon votes from Biden in critical battleground states.

Kennedy's campaign says it has met requirements to appear on Minnesota's ballot this fall, although the Secretary of State's office is still reviewing signatures. Green Party candidate Jill Stein and progressive activist Cornel West are working to collect the 2,000 signatures required to run in the state.

History of seeking out alternatives

Minnesota has a long history of flirting with candidates outside the two major parties. It's one of only two states in the country that have backed a third-party candidate for president, senator and governor since 1900, and it's done that 11 times, far more than other state, said Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs who dug into third-party data.

Until its merger with Democrats, the state's populist Farmer-Labor Party was one of the most successful third-party movements in American history. Minnesota voters sent Ventura, the former pro-wrestler and Reform Party candidate, to the governor's office and gave independent candidate Ross Perot nearly 24% of the vote in the 1992 presidential race.

The share of voters supporting third-party candidates in presidential races had steadily declined in Minnesota since then, but the number climbed back up in 2016 in the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton. More than 8% of Minnesota voters cast their ballots for third-party candidates instead, and Clinton narrowly defeated Trump, by 1.5 percentage points.

That year conservative-aligned third-party candidates such as Libertarian Gary Johnson drew enough support to make the case that they could have cost Minnesota for Trump, said Ostermeier.

Biden won the state by more than 7 percentage points four years later — roughly 2% of voters supported third-party candidates — but he faces re-election this fall with less support than he had in 2020.

"People have shown they're willing to vote outside of the two-party choice, and you have two very unpopular candidates," said political scientist and emeritus Carleton College professor Steven Schier. "Mix well and you've got a lot of uncertainty here with the real possibility that some of these other candidates ... could siphon off enough votes to make it a perilous contest for Biden."

The latest Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll found Biden with a narrow 45%-41% lead over Trump ahead of their anticipated general election rematch, a much tighter contest than he faced in Minnesota in 2020. Seven percent of respondents said they were undecided and 6% supported Kennedy's campaign.

Support in polls for third-party candidates tends to decline as Election Day gets closer, Ostermeier noted, and not everyone looking for an alternative to Biden and Trump sees a viable candidate in the current set of options.

"I wish there were an acceptable independent candidate," said Kenneth Hess, 76, who lives in Paynesville and is a self-described independent voter. "I'm hoping and praying a candidate will surface who we respect, who has good morals and who thinks of the country before their political ambitions."

Hess could see himself backing someone like Democratic West Virginia U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin or former Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney. Without a clear alternative, he's considering sitting out the election.

"It's the first time I've ever thought about not voting at all," Hess said. "I hate to be unpatriotic but they both turn me off."

'Don't take anything for granted'

Democrats have had a more than five-decade winning streak in presidential contests in Minnesota, but the party is grappling with its own internal battle over the Biden administration's handling of the war in Gaza. Nearly 19% of voters in the Democratic presidential primary cast their ballots for "uncommitted," but Schier said disaffected Democrats might skip voting altogether rather than seek out a third-party candidate.

"Whether it's the presidential side or the Senate side, the reality is we don't take anything for granted at the DFL and we are preparing for any potential filing and any potential candidate we have to face," said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.

Nick Shillingford, a 40-year-old nurse from Minneapolis, is volunteering to gather signatures before the Aug. 20 deadline to get progressive academic Cornel West on the ballot this fall. He said younger voters have been especially receptive to having alternative options, many over issues like the environment and Gaza.

"Young people, especially those who are voting for the first time, they want something they can get excited about, and that's definitely not Biden or Trump," Shillingford said.

Kennedy, the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, is a longtime Democrat who switched to be an independent candidate in the 2024 race. He spent his early career as an environmental advocate and lawyer. That's what appeals to Frascone, a former state pollution control staffer who sees Kennedy's work against corporations and the federal government as making him the true outsider candidate.

"Trump wants to come in and drain the swamp," he said. "Kennedy actually knows where it is."

Kennedy's support for abortion restrictions at a certain point in pregnancy and against vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic has also attracted some conservative voters. GOP Party Chair David Hann said third-party candidates appeal to a small number of people who might not have voted at all if they didn't find an alternative. In the case of Kennedy, he said "most of his supporters are pulling from Biden."

"When you do have a close election and you have some percentage that's more than a fraction, it could be enough to change the outcome."

Star Tribune newsroom developer Tom Nehil contributed to this story.