How Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson Can/Will Actually Matter

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 6 2012 1:28 PM

How Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson Can/Will Actually Matter

Gallup is out with its semi-regular national presidential poll that rotates in the names of third party candidates. All national polls are, to a degree, useless. These polls are even more useless. Two reasons why.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

1) Polls dramatically over-state how many people will vote third party. This new survey gives Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson -- arguably the most-qualified third party contender in decades* -- 3 percent of the vote. Jill Stein, who's moving up from Token Massachusetts Green Party Candidate to Token Green Party Presidential Candidate, gets 1 percent. Virgil Goode, the former Democratic, Independent, and Republican congressman from south-central Virginia (seriously, he switched parties twice), gets less than 1 percent. Four years ago, the candidates who grabbed these party nominations polled just as high, then got negligible support. Here are the candidates, with their final poll numbers first and their vote percentage in parentheses.


Ralph Nader - 2% (0.56%)
Bob Barr - 1% (0.40%, including the vote of Jack Shafer)
Cynthia McKinney - 1% (0.12%)

People tell pollsters that they'll consider a third choice. And then they chicken out.

2) Third party candidates swing electoral college votes, so pay attention to that, instead. Al Gore would have become president in 2000 if Ralph Nader had failed to make the ballot in New Hampshire. Nader got 22,198 votes there; Gore lost the state to Bush by 7,211 votes. Nothing could have saved John McCain in 2008, but had Bob Barr failed to make the North Carolina ballot, McCain might have won the state -- 25,722 votes for the Libertarian, only 14,177 votes separating Obama from the loser.

No one, not even Gary Johnson, expects him to score Perot numbers nationally. But in his New Mexico, he polls at 7 to 12 percent. In New Hampshire, he polls at 7 percent. If this is going to be an election defined by negative ads and Obama trying to disqualify Romney personally, there's going to be some runoff into third party voting. The most serious third party candidate used to be a Republican. You can see how this goes.

*Johnson was governor of New Mexico for eight years, giving him more executive experience than anyone who went this route since... well, it's not an enviable comparison, but since George Wallace.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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