Gary Johnson, the popular former Republican governor of New Mexico, is running for President on the Libertarian Party ticket. He is possibly the most popular third party candidate this cycle, though support is quite small at a national level.
In over a century since the modern two party system in America became firmly established, no independent or third party candidate has ever won the presidency. There is a powerful, built in two-party bias that the major parties have helped set in place. This doesn’t mean, though, that third party candidates can’t have an important impact. In the past such candidates have both affected policy and likely swung elections. While Johnson currently seems to have effectively no chance of winning, he could still be a factor.
Third parties have been able to inject issues and positions into the political discourse that would otherwise be ignored by the major parties. On rare occasions, they can change the whole focus of the national debate. The best recent example is probably Ross Perot putting the focus on the deficit and free trade deals.
Johnson wants to fill a void in our political discourse. His campaign is focused on a few popular issue that are completely ignored by Mitt Romney and President Obama, including the wasteful nation building approach to foreign policy and, most importantly for its potential impact on the election, marijuana legalization.
Despite majority popular support for legalization both major parties are ignoring it. Obama has been very bad on marijuana reform, and Romney has taken his incredible opposition to marijuana to the level of a cartoon villain. Johnson knows this is his opening. It is the issue that garners him the most support and attention. With legalization on the ballot in Colorado, Washington and Oregon there is a real chance Johnson’s campaign can help elevate the issue of drug policy reform and get our nation political discourse to take it seriously instead of dismissing it out of hand.
On a rare political level third parties candidates can also swing elections even with rather small vote shares. Because we use an idiotic first-past-the-post voting system, it is possible for a third party candidate to act as a “spoiler.” They can split the vote and allow other candidates to win with a mere plurality. When Teddy Roosevelt ran in 1912, it split the Republican vote, which arguably put Woodrow Wilson in office. And since we also use the idiotic electoral college, third party candidates with only a regional appeal can have an outsize impact. In 1948 Strom Thurmond running as a Dixiecrat only got 2.4 percent of the overall vote, but since it all came from a few Southern states, he won more than 7 percent of the electoral votes.
Unlike many recent third party candidates, Gary Johnson is a proven politician who has won statewide office and remains relatively well known and popular in his state. Even if Johnson polls poorly nationally, he could have a regional impact by doing relatively well in his own state of New Mexico and in the neighboring state of Colorado, where a marijuana legalization initiative being on the ballot gives him a natural in. Both are swing states. PPP found Johnson polling at 13 percent in New Mexico. With Romney and Obama so close it is easy to see how Johnson could get enough votes in these two states to swing the result and possibly the entire election. Johnson taking just a few percent from either candidate could be enough in a close elections to make the difference.
Barring the greatest upset in American political history, Gary Johnson is not going to be the next President of the United States, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t end up being a real factor in this election.