WASHINGTON — If Tuesday’s election is as close as polls suggest, the presidency might be decided by someone named Gary Johnson. Or Virgil Goode. Or Jill Stein.
They’re third party candidates for president. While none has a real shot at winning the White House and few Americans watched their debate Sunday evening, any one might draw just enough support in a battleground state to throw the results to President Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney. It’s happened before, and recently. In 2000, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader’s drew 1.6% of the vote in Florida, forced a recount and the eventual election outcome in favor of Republican George W. Bush.
Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, is on the ballot in 48 states. More importantly, he was drawing the support of 4 percent of likely voters in one poll in Colorado, a swing state. His support for a marijuana initiative is drawing voters who otherwise might vote for Obama.
Goode, the Constitution Party candidate, is drawing the support of about 1 percent in his home state of Virginia, likely drawing support from Romney supporters in a state where Obama and Romney are neck and neck.
Stein, the Green Party candidate, also hopes to stir the pot in closely divided states such as New Hampshire, along with Rocky Anderson, nominee of the Justice Party.
Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, said he would be doing much better if he could have been part of the debates or even be included in more of the polling.
“I’m in very few polls. And polls in and of themselves generate interest,” he told McClatchy.
His standing could be pivotal in Colorado, where voters are closely divided between the two major party candidates. A Nov. 2 Denver Post poll found voter split 47-45 for Obama over Romney. A CNN poll the day before tested Johnson’s support and found 4 percent of likely voters leaning his way.
His support could be tied to a ballot initiative that would allow limited marijuana use for those 21 and older. While the Libertarian message of minimal government usually resonates with Republicans, in this case, Johnson knows he’s drawing from the Democrats. “I take more votes away from Obama than Romney,” he said. “I am more liberal than Obama when it comes to civil liberties,” Johnson said, adding that he supported marijuana legalization when he was governor.
And he is unapologetic about possibly handing the state and its 9 electoral votes to Romney. “If Obama loses, he has one person to blame,” said Johnson. “It’s not me.”
Colorado State University professor Kyle Saunders said, “It’s only in this kind of setting that third party candidates matter.”
The state is so close, he said, that “I refreshed myself on recount rules yesterday.” A difference of one half of one percentage point between the top two finishers would trigger a recount.
Goode, who served in Congress first as a Democrat, then an Independent and finally as a Republican before being defeated in 2008, is on the ballot in 26 states including his home state, like Colorado one of the most closely divided in the country.
The Virginia Republican Party was so worried about Goode or Johnson drawing votes from Romney that in September they challenged their eligibility to be on the ballot. The effort failed and Goode is only too happy to have his message of jobs-for-Americans - with a moratorium on green card immigration until unemployment is 5% - be heard.
“There’s so little difference between Republicans and Democrats on issues that matter to me that it doesn’t matter who gets elected,” said Goode in an interview.
“He was tea party before there was a tea party,” said Virginia-based Republican consultant Tom Edmonds.
Another close state, New Hampshire, with its 4 electoral votes, could also be swung. A Libertarian draw from Romney could deliver the state and its 4 electoral votes to Obama. Or, Green Party votes siphoned off from Obama could turn the state to Romney.
“This could be such a strange election that Johnson or the Greens or Goode could matter,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota.
The success of third party candidates largely rests on independent voters – the same ones that Obama and Romney are wooing.
“Independents call themselves independent for a reason - perhaps because there is something about the two parties that they either dislike or disagree with,” said University of New Mexico political expert Michael Rocca. “In a close election, those 10 percent true independents could be the difference between winning and losing.”
Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm, said "When a race is really close, a third party candidate can tip the scale. We saw that in Florida in 2000. Without Ralph Nader on the ballot, Gore would have won.”
Stein, a physician from Massachusetts who ran for governor as the Green Party candidate against Romney in 2002, is an environmental activist. On the ballot in 36 states, she was recently arrested in Texas for trespassing by bringing supplies to protesters in trees blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project to move oil from Canada to refineries in Texas.
Anderson, a former two-term mayor of Salt Lake City, managed to get on 15 state ballots, as well as write-in status in 20 more, and touts his message as the need to remove corporate money from elections. His campaign has a $100 contribution limit.