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Is Libertarian Gary Johnson the Wild Card in Fall Election?

Is Libertarian Gary Johnson the Wild Card in Fall Election?

By Erin McPike - June 15, 2012


A surprise may be lurking in the presidential campaign that could cause a stir in the coming months, but it has nothing to do with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.

Gary Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico who ran briefly in this cycle's GOP presidential primary, is the Libertarian Party's standard-bearer, and he is finally getting some attention. In the past few weeks he’s appeared on NBC’s “The Daily Rundown” with Chuck Todd, as well as “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show.” Where the president and the presumptive Republican nominee won’t go, Gary Johnson will.

He doesn’t have a vast campaign account, as the two major-party candidates do, but he does have Roger Stone, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns who says he’s sick of the party and is now consulting for Johnson. Stone believes that with the rise of social media, there are ways to break through the campaign din, and he’s cooking up some “provocative” stunts that will get Johnson attention in the months ahead.

To Stone, the effort has nothing to do with being a spoiler in the election. Rather, he says, the Johnson campaign is all about waking up the electorate to the Libertarian movement.

“I’m not concerned about Gary Johnson becoming president in the 2012 election,” he says, adding that winning electoral votes is not what the campaign is plotting. Stone is trying to help Johnson get enough attention that he registers at least 15 percent in three national polls, thus becoming eligible to participate in the presidential debates this fall. He’s also working to get Johnson on the ballot in all 50 states and says that will likely happen, barring a possible hiccup in Oklahoma.

It’s all tied to getting matching funds from the Federal Election Commission to compete in future elections, because the Johnson team is certain once more voters are informed of Libertarian positions, large swaths of the electorate will swing their way.

Take Johnson’s campaign slogan: “You’re Libertarian, too. I’ll prove it to you.”

The premise rests on the belief that younger Americans are at a crossroads: They may be socially liberal, but they are fiscally conservative, and they don’t know whether to choose the Democratic Party in order to satisfy the former sentiments or the GOP to sate the latter. But in joining the Libertarian Party, they wouldn’t have to choose.

In order to meet their goals, the small and volunteer-laden Johnson operation intends to lean heavily on the legions of Ron Paul supporters scattered throughout the country, a following amassed during his most recent presidential runs. Stone says that through the power of social media, disappointed Paul devotees will discover that they don’t have to abandon their policy positions; instead, they can find them in Johnson, an anti-war, pro-legalized marijuana former Republican. Stone clarified that one area of difference between Paul and Johnson is abortion: Paul opposes abortion rights, Johnson supports them.

To make a splash and win votes along the way, Stone says Johnson plans to run to the right in some policy areas and pull from Romney, and run to the left in others. He thinks the Libertarian candidate can scare up votes in Oregon specifically on the marijuana issue, whereas in North Carolina he would emphasize his right flank. The team insists it’s not in the race to spoil the election for Romney or Obama, even though that possibility exists.

Some Public Policy Polling (D) surveys show Johnson getting a small chunk of support in several states. Because most of the polls are dated, however, his real effect is hard to measure. Still, an Arizona survey in late May showed him taking 9 percent of the vote.

And former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough, who hosts MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” penned a column for Politico this week explaining why he cast a “protest vote” in this year’s primary for Ron Paul. In such a negative election, where enthusiasm has been dampened on both sides, more protest votes may not be so unlikely come November. And that could give Libertarians the chance to be competitive in the future.

At this juncture, neither the Romney campaign nor the Obama campaign has been willing to comment on Johnson and how he might impact the election. But underestimating that impact on what has proved to be a volatile electorate over the past two years could be a mistake. 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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