Could votes for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, swing the presidential election to President Barack Obama? It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.
Although Johnson won’t carry a single state, he might change the winner of some state, and if the election is close enough, one state could change the outcome of the whole election.
No third-party candidate has ever been elected, but some may have swung the election away from the party from which they defected.
In 1948, Strom Thurmond won four states and 39 electoral votes, but didn’t change the outcome. Most of his support came from voters who would have voted for President Harry S. Truman. Yet Truman won, as he put up a spirited fight against an overconfident Thomas Dewey.
In 1968, George Wallace won five states with 45 electoral votes and Richard Nixon won. I can’t say what would have happened in that tumultuous year without Wallace.
Some claim that Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992 cost President George H.W. Bush the election, but that’s dissolved into arcane arguments that don’t quite persuade. But so what? Whatever the truth in 1992, it proves nothing about what will happen in 2012, only that third-party candidates can – under unforeseen circumstances – shake things up.
A unique third-party incursion happened in 1912, when popular former President Teddy Roosevelt, angered at the performance of Republican President William Howard Taft, ran for president. He got more votes than Taft, but Taft and Roosevelt together got more votes than the winner, Woodrow Wilson.
So has a third party ever changed the outcome of an election?
That’s arguably exactly what happened in 2000. George W. Bush won Florida – and the presidency – by just a few hundred votes. The Greens, with Ralph Nader, got votes in Florida, and well over half of them would have gone to Al Gore. Even Pat Buchanan played a role. Had he withdrawn, his voters would have given Bush the victory by a greater margin – and sooner – thus erasing any excuse for dragging the decision through the courts for a month.
These vignettes indicate that a changed outcome is unlikely, yet impossible to predict, even right before the election.
Our 2012 outcome hinges on how Johnson voters would have voted in Johnson’s absence. I think it is pretty clear that the great majority of them would go for Mitt Romney.
I have heard Libertarians say that they wouldn’t care, or wouldn’t vote, because Romney is just like Obama. Oh, please! Anyone who says that is either woefully uninformed or else just wants to irritate Republicans. For anyone with conservative, free-market values, Romney is far better by every measure.
Given Johnson’s low standing in the polls, he probably won’t be a “spoiler.” But if he is, it will be Romney who is hurt. That is, few if any Libertarians would support Obama as their second choice.
Why are the Libertarians willing to give even a sliver of a chance to Obama, who – I thought – they oppose? Libertarians say they are building for the future. But by 2016 it may be too late to reverse the massive changes that Obama will impose if he’s re-elected.
Kenneth Brown is a retired senior executive with the National Science Foundation.