In a two-party country, one presidential candidate faces steep odds

Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson is running for president as a Libertarian. As governor, he worked on education reform, vetoed a record 750 bills and left the state with a budget surplus. (Campaign photo)

Emily Siner

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

Gary Johnson doesn’t agree with Barack Obama or Mitt Romney on most things, and he certainly doesn’t agree that either of them should be president. The best one for the job, he believes, is himself.

He’s running as a Libertarian, and that means one thing in American politics: A lot of people who might agree with him just won’t vote for him.

“I’m not naïve. I know the odds are against us,” said Johnson’s running mate, retired California Superior Court judge Jim P. Gray, in a telephone interview last week.

A two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, Johnson worked on education reform and advocated for the decriminalization of marijuana use, but his most frequent tactic was to stop the New Mexico Legislature from doing anything. He vetoed a record-breaking 750 bills, earning him the nickname “Governor Veto.” When he left office, the state had a budget surplus.

After a stint in the Republican presidential primaries last year, he turned to the Libertarian Party, one of the largest third parties in the U.S., and won its nomination in May. By Libertarian standards, he’s doing pretty well. As of early July, he has a place on 30 state ballots, and he’s expecting to be on almost all 50 by November.

Now, his goal is to attract 15 percent support in five national polls – the 12-year-old standard for participation in the televised presidential and vice-presidential debates in October. As far as goals go, it’s a lofty one. An Investor’s Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor/TIPP Poll from early July ranked him at 2 percent, but in general, few of the polls even include him as an option.

Johnson and Gray need to get noticed in polls to be in the debates – but they need those debates to get noticed. A simple Google News search Tuesday for stories published within the past 24 hours showed 24,400 results for “Barack Obama,” 18,700 results for “Mitt Romney” and a mere 220 results for “Gary Johnson,” not all of them for Gary Johnson, presidential hopeful.

“I think that we have a legitimate chance of winning – if we get in the debates,” Gray said. “If we cannot get into the debates, we’re dead.”

Some would say they were doomed from the start.

Little room for third parties

David Crockett, a professor of political history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, argues that almost since its foundation, the U.S. government has been divided in two. When fundamental issues arise – whether there should be a national bank, whether to allow slavery in new territories – politicians gather around one of two answers: yes or no.

What happens to Americans who don’t align with a party on every issue? If there are enough of them, they might form their own party, which is why the Libertarian Party was founded in 1971.

But strategically, this isn’t a rational way to gain power. U.S. elections are winner-take-all; the second-place candidate, no matter how popular, gets nothing. And the presidential election raises the odds even higher: All states except Nebraska and Maine have a winner-take-all rule for their electoral votes, so a candidate has to win enough states to secure a victory.

If a third party is in the race, one that’s new or not well known, voters probably won’t have the confidence to vote for its candidate. They’ll see it as “wasting their vote,” even if they agree with that candidate, said Lara Brown, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa.

Take Ross Perot, who ran as an independent against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992 on a platform of balancing the budget. He was in the debates – the most recent third-party candidate to be included – and he won a fifth of the popular vote, the most a third-party candidate has won since 1912. Ultimately, he failed to win any electoral votes.

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Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson is running for president as a Libertarian. As governor, he worked on education reform, vetoed a record 750 bills and left the state with a budget surplus. Campaign photoThese two issues were particularly potent. The Democratic Party became a coherent political force in the 1830s partially by opposing the national bank, and the Republican Party, with presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, ousted the Whig Party in 1860 by opposing the extension of slavery. Although the parties’ platforms have morphed, they have dominated U.S. politics since. (Graphic courtesy SHFWire)

A political group whose main goal is anti-terrorism might not agree with the group that supports hands-off economics, but in the end they have an incentive to form a coalition with one of the big players – in this case, the Republican Party. These factions decide it’s better to be the backup player on a popular team than to be the MVP in a game with no one watching.

It’s just as important for the big two players to make sure these factions either join them or leave the game. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran against Al Gore and George W. Bush as the Green Party candidate. He won about 3 percent of the popular vote, but Crockett said that his environmental platform might have cut into the Democratic votes in swing states, including Florida – costing Gore the election.

Democrats and Republicans have an incentive to incorporate the key issues of popular independent parties into their platforms, as Clinton did when he emphasized the budget in 1992.

The major parties are happy because they dissolved their opponent’s platform; the voters are happy because the issue is being addressed. Everyone wins except, of course, the third-party candidate. Perot might have thought about balancing the budget, but Clinton was the one who got to do it.

The Libertarian hope

“If you’re really serious about winning,” Crockett said about Johnson and Gray, “you become a Libertarian-Republican. You become a Republican with Libertarian ideology.”

But both men defied Crockett’s logic. Johnson left the Republican Party in December, and Gray, who had an unsuccessful bid as a Republican nominee for a House seat in 1998, said he left the Republican Party after Bush signed the Patriot Act in 2001.

“I could not be a part of any group that would condone, much less assist, such a direct and frontal attack upon our liberties,” Gray said. “It took me about 9½ seconds to realize that my home was with the Libertarian Party.”

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The Libertarian Party challenges the notion that the government should fix the country’s problems. The party’s views aren’t anarchist – otherwise, Johnson wouldn’t be running for a government position – but it believes private individuals and the free market are more effective at finding innovative approaches to health care, stem cell research and other issues.

The party sticks to the Republican ideals of balancing the budget “exclusively by cutting expenditures, and not by raising taxes,” according to its platform. Johnson wants to do away with the income tax and Internal Revenue Service and enact a consumption-based tax called the FairTax, which Gray said would bring manufacturing back to the U.S., create jobs and minimize administration fraud.

Economically, the Libertarian Party runs close to the Tea Party, Crockett said. But the party’s hands-off philosophy also extends to social issues – or, to quote Johnson’s mantra in interviews, it is “fiscally conservative and socially tolerant.” When it comes to abortion or gay marriage, Libertarians say the government shouldn’t be involved. Johnson believes marijuana use should be regulated and taxed by the government, but not criminalized.

“A Libertarian is going to end the wars in the Middle East,” Johnson said on the Colbert Report in April, to cheers from the audience. “A Libertarian’s going to balance the federal budget. A Libertarian’s going to stand up for marriage equality.”

Gray is confident most Americans would “flock” to Johnson’s ideas if they thought he was a viable alternative.

“There are so many people that are voting not for Obama so much as they’re voting against Romney. … And there are lots of people that would put their X by Romney, but they’re really voting against Obama,” he said. “You know something? Vote in favor of someone. If you vote for the lesser of two evils, all you still end up with is evil.”

Reach reporter Emily Siner at emily.siner@shns.com or 202-326-9871.

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