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Yet, as the dour assessment of many LP insiders show, there is something about long experience that just leads you to doubt anything interesting can happen for third parties, no matter what the current polls or logic show. Third party candidates regularly end up earning far fewer votes than the heights of their polling indicate That was the case for Perot (who was leading both Bush and Clinton at one time) as well as Anderson. Ralph Nader underperformed his early polling, and even the LP’s last standard bearer, former GOP congressman from Georgia Bob Barr had polls showing him getting anywhere from 3-7 percent in the months leading up to an election in which he earned 0.4 percent.
Beyond what data we have now—not particularly useful given Johnson’s lack of presence in most polling or media—the two-party wagons have weeks to circle. An Examiner article by Karl Dickey that blithely declares 5 million votes for Johnson makes the bad assumption that people who would directly benefit from his winning and who are directly harmed by either of his opponents' winning — like internet gamblers or pot smokers — will perforce vote for Johnson. Alas, people don’t actually vote their self-interest, and even pot smokers and gamblers can’t be counted on to be single-issue voters. That sort of libertarian triumphalism based on who benefits from a more libertarian world will continue to lead to overly optimistic libertarians astray.
Which is more than a shame. Johnson can win, in theory. He’s on the ballot so far in every state but Pennsylvania, Michigan and Oklahoma. At least one online survey discussed by Fox Business showed “that if the Presidential race was based on people’s beliefs, it would be between Obama and Johnson.” But David Kirby at the Cato Institute, dredging data from a Reason-Rupe poll from September, decides that Romney will be capturing 70 percent of what he identifies as the libertarian vote, even with Johnson in the mix.
One huge flaw with how Kirby decided who qualified as “libertarian” is that it includes no consideration of foreign policy, where any libertarian would be hard pressed to see anything to support in Romney, and a great deal to love with Johnson.
Johnson is saying the right things about stopping the wars and how we’ve departed from our nation’s founding principles. He’s trying very hard to appeal to the rising generation by stressing drug legalization, by explaining how the current system screws the young, and of course by crowd-surfing, handing out rolling papers with his image, wearing the same peace sign T-shirt for days in a row, making silly zombie videos and answering questions of all comers on Reddit three times. (Alas for a youth-based strategy, it’s very hard to get them out to vote in large numbers; not even Obama could do it.) Johnson is trying to avoid scaring people out of the political paradigm they’ve embraced for life by mildly asking them to “be libertarian with me” for just one election, not rethink their politics entirely.
It may be that what everyone really wants is not liberty for themselves or others, but income redistribution, a government that they think will solve their problems or be on their side in a culture war, or otherwise play dangerous games that are nothing but a recipe for crisis. Johnson has a lot going for him—except the imprimatur of the two party system, the mark of normalcy that is all too mysteriously necessary in American politics even when we hear of huge expressed dissatisfaction with both of them.
A May Reason-Rupe poll found 80 percent saying they’d consider voting independent, but if experience teaches us anything, it’s that nearly all of them really won’t. Both sides' likely voters seem highly motivated by a strong dislike for the other choice, such that they aren’t inclined to “risk” the other winning by going third party (though any individual voter can rest assured the results will by a mathematical certainty be the same no matter what he or she does).
Perot and Anderson did well not so much by challenging a two-party status quo as by selling the same nonsense under different labels and with styles that stood out from their particular opponents. Johnson, to his credit as a thinker and his detriment as a politician, is selling something truly new, necessary, disconcerting and scary: a government that actually lives within its means, stops trying to manage our lives and does not presume to control the world. His failure to excel won’t hurt him; he’s got a good private life and seems inclined to run again anyway. But it will hurt America.