AP Photo/The New Mexican, Clyde Mueller
Friday, Oct. 5, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When the election is this near and polls are this close, it often seems like any soft breeze could tip the scales in favor of one presidential candidate or the other.
Such as a good jobs report. Or a bad debate performance.
Or a third party candidate.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s pick for 2012, hasn’t gained as much recognition as his third-party predecessors.
He hasn’t been invited to participate in the debates, as Ross Perot was in 1992. He hasn’t yet captured as many headlines as did the 2000 cycle’s Ralph Nader, whose 90,000 votes in Florida tipped the scales out of former vice president Al Gore’s favor enough that George W. Bush was eventually awarded the state’s electoral votes and became president.
Despite that, Johnson’s campaign, and the Libertarian Party backing him, consider Johnson to be a more serious candidate than any of his predecessors.
“Gov. Johnson is the most qualified person to be president of the United States that I know of,” Judge Jim Gray, Johnson’s running mate, said in an interview with the Sun on Thursday. “As he has said: We will run to win.”
But, as Gray and members of the Libertarian Party readily admit, their real goal is a far more modest showing that won’t get Johnson anywhere near the White House. Still, the very fact he’s on the ballot could potentially keep one of the two frontrunner candidates from getting in.
“In a close race, can he be the spoiler? Certainly he can be the spoiler,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with the Cook Political Report. “In a really close race, a third candidate who gets 2 percent can make a difference.”
The Johnson camp’s goal is actually 5 percent, that being the performance threshold necessary to get public funding in 2016.
“Academic polls are showing the governor between 5 and 6.5 percent, so that’s where we are now,” Campaign Manager Ron Nielsen said in an interview Thursday, adding that he expected the turnout for Johnson in Nevada to be higher. “What we’re presenting is an opportunity for voters to make a choice. And we say it’s the best choice. ... If the notion comes up that Gary Johnson is a spoiler, then so be it. People have the right to make a decision.”
“If we just get 5 percent of the vote nationwide, it will be historic,” Gray said. “It will be the beginning of the end of the two-party system.”
To reach that goal, his campaign is doing everything they can to promote Johnson on a limited budget — the campaign has less than $2 million in total reported receipts — and almost no airtime.
But with his name recognition still relatively low, it’s clear that his campaign staffers are promoting the negative aspects of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney to rustle up the protest vote.
“It is a protest we’re encouraging: We’re protesting the two-party system,” Nielsen said. “We’re protesting the same versus the same, and we’re offering something different.”
Johnson’s showing in Nevada — where the presidential race remains tight — depends on how many voters decide they want to cast a protest vote and, of those, how many of them decide to choose Johnson as their protest selection.
Nevada has its fair share of disaffected voters this year, especially in the Republican Party.
“Nevada’s a very unique situation. ... I think we’ll have a huge faction of people that are GOPers on the Ron Paul side who want to see the revolution continue with Gary Johnson,” said Brett Pojunis, a national committee member with the Libertarian Party who is based in Nevada and is supporting Johnson. “Gary in the campaign has spent a tremendous amount of time, effort, resources and money developing a message specifically for the Ron Paulers, and that message is: ‘If you loved Ron Paul, you’re going to love Gary Johnson.’”
Pojunis rattled off several points of Johnson’s platform that matched up with Paul’s. They’re both anti-war, pro-small government and in favor of ending the Fed. It’s a message Johnson has been taking directly to the Ron Paul supporters for months, even appearing at a rally of the Paul faithful in Tampa to ask for their support.
“(Ron Paul’s) supporters are coming to us because we have one enormous benefit and quality that Dr. Paul does not: We will be on the ballot in November, and he will not be,” Gray said.
That message is swaying some Paul followers, but not with the same against-all-odds gusto they exhibited for Paul.
“My vote is about 98 percent cast in stone for Gary Johnson,” said Cynthia Kennedy, a Paul supporter from Las Vegas and one of the Nevada delegates to the Republican National Convention who broke their obligation to vote for Romney in Tampa, Fla., in favor of Paul. “But who knows? At the last minute, something might happen and Obama makes a terrible decision — if he’s leading in the polls and it’s absolutely imperative to get him out of there, I might change my mind.
“But Romney seems to be doing okay without my vote,” she hastily added.
“I think (Johnson’s) a much better candidate than Romney or Obama ... and I may vote for him. But I’m not supporting him or endorsing him; I’m not actually going out and hustling up votes for him,” said Jim Ayala of Henderson, who also was an RNC delegate who switched from Romney to Paul. “I probably agree with maybe 80 percent of the stuff Gary Johnson talks about. But I see Rand Paul as a much more viable collector of the Paul support. ... He probably agrees with his father on 90 percent of the issues.”
Johnson already has vowed that he would remain the Libertarian Party’s candidate through the 2012 cycle and run again in 2016 — when most Paul supporters are expecting that their former leader’s son Rand, currently serving as a U.S. senator from Kentucky, will pick up the mantle of the movement his father inspired and possibly run for president.
“It’s tough to go with a guy like Gary Johnson knowing that it’s going nowhere,” said Carl Bunce, Paul’s former state campaign director, who said he would not be shifting his loyalties. “I think (Johnson’s) a good asset for the libertarian mindset, movement, argument, but I don’t think he’ll have a huge effect from Nevada, as far as pulling voters from Republicans.”
In Nevada, Johnson isn’t the only option to register one’s displeasure with the two big-party candidates on offer. There’s also the option to vote “none of these candidates.”
“None of the above — I think that might be more of a factor than Gary Johnson, actually,” Bunce said.
But it’s difficult to know for sure. There hasn’t been much reliable polling in Nevada that takes Johnson’s candidacy or the none of the above option into account, Duffy said.
Paul’s supporters drew a lot of attention during the Republican primary season, but in the end, they didn’t turn out that many votes: Paul drew only 6,175 to the state caucuses out of a total 32,894 voters.
“In the presidential election, there’s going to be what — 800,000 voting here? It’s a very small fraction of the total,” said David Damore, professor of political science at UNLV. “In Nevada, some folks pride themselves of that libertarian mindset, so it is better territory for (Johnson) than a lot of places. But it’s still at the margin.”
The numbers are slightly better when one looks to registered Libertarian voters, who number just shy of 8,000 statewide, according to the Nevada secretary of state’s official count from September 2012.
Pojunis and other Libertarians plan to use the Johnson campaign to grow those numbers: On Monday, the Libertarian Party will launch a three-week long “Double the LP” drive to promote Johnson and double their dues-paying membership, a campaign that will culminate on Oct. 26 with a party in Las Vegas featuring Johnson and Gray.
But whether that will generate enough energy around the campaign to put Johnson over the turnout top isn’t clear.
Thus far, Johnson has attracted only modest crowds, such as the 300 who turned out to hear him speak at UNLV last week — and that’s the Libertarian Party’s estimate. Campaign officials did not share formal estimates of anticipated attendance for a series of events Gray plans to hold in and around Las Vegas on Friday.
In an interview, Gray was particularly optimistic about his chances of winning over the local electorate, from all parts of the political spectrum.
“In Nevada, there’s such disenchantment: Most people figuring on putting an ‘X’ by Obama’s name are just voting against Romney, and most people putting an ‘X’ by Romney’s name are just voting against Obama,” he said. “We are coming at Obama from the left ... and we’re coming at Romney from the right.
“We’ve approached the Tea Party ... and we’re in line with the Occupy movement. We are in the middle where neither Buchanan nor Ralph Nader were. We apply across the board. We are classic liberals and classic conservatives. ... We are refreshing.”
But in this election climate, a refreshing alternative may not be enough to get voters up and to the polls — even if they are fed up with their standard choices.
“Romney or Obama ... a lot of time voters just can’t stomach voting for either of them,” Duffy said. “But they still don’t want to be the spoiler."