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Gary Johnson sets third-party pot bubbling as he quits GOP race

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson said Wednesday he is quitting the Republican primaries and will run for president as a Libertarian, highlighting the possibility a third-party candidate could impact the 2012 election.

By Dave CookStaff writer / December 28, 2011

Former New Mexico Governor Governor Gary Johnson (r.) speaks to reporters after announcing he was dropping out of the Republican Presidential nomination race and he would seek the Libertarian nomination for President of the United States during a media event in Sante Fe, New Mexico, Wednesday. California Libertarian congressional candidate Steve Collett is shown at left.

Jane Phillips/Reuters

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Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson said Wednesday that he is quitting the Republican primaries and will run for president as a Libertarian, highlighting the possibility a third-party candidate could play a role in deciding the 2012 presidential election.

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Governor Johnson was not a factor in the battle between Republican candidates now raging in Iowa. As a result of his meager performance in the polls, he was excluded from all but two of this year’s 15 Republican presidential debates. 

Barring a major surge in his appeal to voters, Johnson’s switch of party affiliation is not likely to have a major nationwide impact. The move could affect the results in the swing state of New Mexico. A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey there found Johnson could draw 20 to 23 percent of the vote, insuring that President Obama would carry the state with 44 to 45 percent of the vote.

Beyond its implications in New Mexico, Johnson’s move increases the likelihood the 2012 presidential race will feature a stronger than usual third-party showing. Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg recently predicted “there is going to be a third party candidate” based on high levels of voter dissatisfaction. When Ross Perot made his third party run in 1992, “those were happy times compared to now in terms of the mood of the country,” Greenberg said.  

Greenberg’s view is that “almost any third party helps Obama” by splintering the president’s opposition. He spoke at a recent Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters.

Americans Elect is a major force helping boost the prospects for a stronger third-party movement. On its website, the group says its goal is “to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters – not the political system.” The non-partisan organization is now on the ballot in 13 states including California, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, and signature collecting efforts are underway in 17 others. It has raised $22 million to date. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus recently wrote that Americans Elect is the “political wild card for the Internet” age.

Another wild card is who Governor Johnson will have to battle for the Libertarian nomination. One possibility is that Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who ran for president under the Libertarian banner in 1988, might seek to run on the Libertarian ticket if he does not land the Republican nomination. Congressman Paul has not definitively ruled out seeking the Libertarian nomination.

In a statement, Libertarian Party executive director Carla Howell welcomed Johnson to the party, saying he had “an outstanding record for vetoing legislation” and “has also proposed a substantial reduction in federal spending.”  He also supports legalizing marijuana and abortion rights. The Libertarian nominating convention is scheduled for May 5. 

Prior to his formal announcement at a Santa Fe press conference, Johnson sounded bitter about the Republican primary process. He told the Alamogordo Daily News that “anyone who looks at what has happened would say I have been treated unfairly. I think I’ve been hung out to dry by the Republican Party.”

It is not clear whether life in a third party will be better. As the National Journal’s Hotline noted, the last time a third-party candidate was included in a general election debate was 1996, when Ross Perot was running on the Reform Party ticket.

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