The Gov. Gary Johnson factor: "Poll after poll shows lackluster enthusiasm for Obama and Romney, along with continuing voter disgust with Washington and most national institutions..." - Politico
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s chances of becoming president haven’t changed much over the course of the 2012 cycle, during which he ran for the Republican presidential nomination, participated in two national debates, dropped out of the primaries and reentered the race as the Libertarian Party nominee.
Throughout, his odds of national victory have held steady around zero.
But as the presidential raeads into the summer, with President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney locked in a tight contest and voters’ distaste for both major-party candidates running high, political operatives have started pondering a different question: Could Johnson matter, even on the election’s margins?
Poll after poll shows lackluster enthusiasm for Obama and Romney, along with continuing voter disgust with Washington and most national institutions. That probably isn’t enough to push even a single electoral vote into Johnson’s camp. It could, however, put just enough ballots in Johnson’s column — in a kind of disaffected,“throw-the-bums-out” way — to affect the outcome in a handful of states.
Early polling has shown Johnson taking more from Romney, although pollsters say he’s peeling off votes from Obama as well. Johnson has said he expects to be on the ballot in all 50 states.
If there’s an opportunity for Johnson to make a difference anywhere, it’s likely in Mountain states such as his native New Mexico, and Colorado and Nevada, where he could shave votes from the major-party candidates. In a close race that neither side thinks will be an electoral landslide, Johnson could make a real difference — especially with Ron Paul’s libertarian-leaning backers now up for grabs.
“The people who are saying they’re going vote for Johnson right now generally are people who dislike both Obama and Romney,” said Tom Jensen, of the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which has found Johnson polling between 5 percent and 10 percent in some states.
Those numbers will eventually fall back to earth, Jensen predicted: “I’m just relying on history on that front — unless a third-party candidate’s really well-funded and getting visibility similar to the others that they’re facing [they fade]. Most of these people who are saying they’re voting for Gary Johnson right now will end up voting for Romney.”
Johnson doesn’t see himself as a receptacle for protest votes.
“I’d like to think it’s because of what I’m saying,” the former governor told POLITICO in an interview, referring to polls showing him getting well above 5 percent in some swing states.
“It’s not so much the discontent, although that may be a factor,” he added, invoking Paul’s own declaration when the Texas congressman ended his active campaigning that he still had a following who embraces his small government, libertarian message.
Nearly every cycle, there’s speculation that a third-party candidate could catch fire, or simply gain enough traction to affect the top-line results. Nearly always, that candidate fades before the general election takes place. The most famous third-party candidate in recent presidential history is Ross Perot, who was polling at 39 percent in the summer of 1992, ultimately collecting just short of 19 percent of the national vote and getting no electoral college votes.
“At the end of the day, most people don’t want to throw away their votes,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Yet the pervasive dislike of the two major 2012 hopefuls could linger and be exploited in places where Johnson is well known.
“I really think Gary Johnson takes New Mexico off the table for Mitt Romney,” said Jill Hanauer, president of the Democratic firm Project New America, which polls Western states.
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