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The Third-Party Factor: Will 2012 Look Like 2000?

Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson addresses students at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in September.
Jim Mone
Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson addresses students at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in September.

As the presidential race enters its final weeks, there are many factors that could affect the outcome: a great — or terrible — debate performance by one of the candidates on Monday in Florida; the next jobs report; or the presence of third-party candidates who are on the ballot in almost every state.

Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico who's running on the Libertarian ticket, is on the ballot in 48 states.

In an ad on his YouTube channel, he makes his pitch this way: "If you'd rather rebuild roads, schools, bridges and hospitals here at home instead of building them for others halfway around the world, you're a libertarian," he says. "If you're the kind of person who talks about ending warfare and welfare in the same sentence, you're a libertarian. If you think your body, your love life and your private business are no business of the federal government, you're libertarian."

Johnson doesn't have much money, but he does have some experienced — unpaid — help, including Roger Stone, the colorful Republican operative who, among other things, is famous for tattooing an image of Richard Nixon on his back.

Stone says calculating Johnson's potential impact on the 2012 race is not so simple.

"This is a candidate who is opposed to the Afghanistan war, who wants to legalize marijuana ... who wants to repeal the Patriot Act, so I think he appeals to certain left-of-center voters," Stone says. "But he's also someone who proposes balancing the federal budget now ... who would do away with the Federal Reserve and wants to return us to a sound dollar, so he has appeal to certain right-of-center voters.

"So ... ask me the state and I'll tell you who I think he pulls from."

What about in Colorado, a battleground state with a Mountain West libertarian streak and maybe many young Ron Paul supporters?

"Because Colorado has a marijuana initiative on the ballot and Gov. Johnson has endorsed it and the president has had no comment, I think that he disproportionately probably pulls a few more votes in Colorado from the president," Stone says.

But if Johnson could hurt President Obama in Colorado, in other battlegrounds, like Nevada and New Hampshire, Stone sees Johnson pulling votes away from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. This theory has been utterly rejected by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

"We don't have a third-party candidate that's anywhere near the name recognition or the popularity of Ross Perot or John Anderson," he said in an interview on CNN. "I just don't see that happening. In fact ... it's almost a nonfactor."

Constitution Party presidential candidate Virgil Goode (right) visits a barber shop while campaigning in Lynchburg, Va., in September.
Don Petersen / AP
Constitution Party presidential candidate Virgil Goode (right) visits a barber shop while campaigning in Lynchburg, Va., in September.

To which Stone responds: "It just aggravates me as a lifetime Republican that the Republicans — on the one hand, the national chairman says Johnson's a nonfactor, but the Republicans, in truth, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with paid lawyers and private investigators trying to bump Gov. Johnson off the ballot in Ohio, in Virginia, in Iowa, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, in Oklahoma," he says. "What's wrong with an election?"

Johnson isn't the only third-party candidate with the potential to mess things up for the two major parties. In the battleground state of Virginia, former six-term Rep. Virgil Goode is running on the anti-immigration Constitution Party ticket.

Although Goode is on the ballot is 26 states, Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth says he's really a local phenomenon.

"That phenomenon is that this a person who's been in state politics in one way or another for over 30 years. He's very well-known and very well-liked in a small slice of the state," Holsworth says. "And that's the kind of state where sort of a rural Republican populism probably plays a lot better than the corporate Republicanism of Mitt Romney."

Goode is from southwestern Virginia — exactly where Romney needs a big vote total to offset the president's strength in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

"There is a real nightmare scenario for the Republicans associated with Goode's candidacy," Holsworth says. "Because no one expects Goode to get a lot of the vote. But in a race that could be razor tight here, if he gets 1 percent or 2 percent of the vote, most analysts, including myself, believe that the majority of that vote is going to come out of Mitt Romney. So there is that potential that Virgil Goode could be, in some ways, the Ralph Nader of 2012."

Republicans were hoping this presidential election would look like 1980, when Ronald Reagan — after a great debate performance — began to pull away from the unpopular incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Democrats were hoping the race would be more like 2004, when the incumbent, George W. Bush, developed a small but durable lead over his challenger, John Kerry.

But right now, this race is looking much like 2000, the nail-biter of a contest that went down to the wire — and way beyond. And where Nader — with just 1 percent of the vote in Florida — made history.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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