Gary Johnson to bolt GOP for Libertarians. Will his candidacy matter?

The planned move by Republican candidate Gary Johnson to seek the Libertarian nomination has been the topic of speculation for weeks. Would his third-party candidacy hurt the GOP?

Jim Damaske/St. Petersburg Times/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson speaks during an interview on Dec. 12, in the lobby of a Hampton Inn and Suites in Clearwater, Fla.

With Republican voters barely noticing Gary Johnson’s run for presidency, the former New Mexico governor is now pinning his hopes on a bid for the Libertarian nomination.

He’s expected to announce the switch officially on Dec. 28, Politico first reported Tuesday night.

But it’s been a subject of speculation for weeks, especially since Mr. Johnson mentioned the possibility when he essentially gave up his efforts in New Hampshire in late November after biking 500 miles across the state and still garnering just 1 percent or less in the polls, according to

Johnson has expressed frustration at the system governing inclusion in televised debates, which requires minimum poll or fund-raising results. He’s only appeared in two of the GOP debates.

Johnson’s news is yet another trigger for speculation about the possible “spoiler” effect that one or more third-party candidates could have on the election in November.

Historically, Libertarian candidates haven’t made enough of a dent to spoil the chances of a major-party candidate, but they tend to “disproportionately hurt Republicans,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“If this continues to be a time of economic dislocation ... then given American history, you would expect one or more independent candidates,” Professor Sabato says.

More than half of Americans – 55 percent – say a third party is needed, compared with 38 percent who say the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, according to a Gallup poll this fall.

But whether they’d really throw their support behind Johnson or any other candidate outside the mainstream is difficult to predict.

“This is a very serious time.... This third-party foolishness will be looked at more soberly this time,” says Patrick Griffin, an unaligned Republican strategist and senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.

There was a place for a gadfly like Ross Perot in 1992, but most Republicans think he cost George H.W. Bush that election, Mr. Griffin says. People like Johnson “are malcontents, and frankly, they should go on book tour.”

If Americans turn out to have more stomach for the idea than Griffin does, he adds, President Obama will be thrilled because they’d most likely draw votes away from his Republican opponent.

In the swing state of New Mexico, Johnson as a Libertarian would draw 20 to 23 percent support in a three-way race for president, with Obama at 44 to 45 percent, and Gingrich or Romney coming in second, at 28 percent and 27 percent respectively, according to a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) New Mexico survey.

Johnson is a fiscal conservative who says that if he’s elected, he’ll present a balanced budget and end military intervention in Afghanistan. He wants to legalize and tax marijuana, and he supports gay marriage. He also supports abortion rights.

The Libertarian Party welcomes the news of Johnson’s switch, but still has a competitive process for its nomination.

“Governor Johnson appeals both to non-interventionists of all political parties (including independents), who are disappointed with President Obama’s wars in Afghanistan and Libya – as well as to fiscal conservatives who see most Republican candidates as agents of Big Government and high taxes – with the notable exception, of course, of Congressman Ron Paul,” Carla Howell, executive director of the National Libertarian Party, said in an e-mail to the Monitor.

Many are waiting to see if US Representative Paul, currently running strong in some states for the Republican nomination, might also seek the Libertarian nomination, to be decided in May. He won that nomination in 1988, but recently shrugged off the notion that he’d seek it again, commenting on the campaign trail in New Hampshire that Johnson’s decision was a good one.

Associated Press material was used in this story.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.