COMMENTARY | Could Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, play a spoiler role in the 2012 election, especially out west? Most polls aren't even giving him the benefit of the doubt, failing to include him as an option.
But those polls that do include Johnson find him doing surprisingly well. He could tip the balance in several western swing states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. And with every state mattering, that could be the difference in a close race in 2012.
A poll by the group "We Ask America" released on June 26 in Colorado shows a neck-and-neck race. Obama leads 46 percent to 43 percent in this Western swing state, but it is within the margin of error. That makes this Rocky Mountain state a toss-up, right? But Johnson wasn't listed in the headlines of the poll.
It's the same story with a Rasmussen Reports poll. This June survey of Colorado voters shows both candidates knotted at 45 percent in the Centennial State. Johnson isn't mentioned.
But look at the Public Policy Polling results from June. This shows Obama with a 49 percent to 42 percent lead. Unlike the others, they include Johnson in the mix. The results show that with the Libertarian candidate in the mix, Obama leads 47 percent to 39 percent in Colorado, with Johnson picking up 7 percent points.
Now PPP polls lean left the way Rasmussen leans right. But they don't lean libertarian. Johnson's strength, where he is best known, could be a factor. Already, the Johnson camp is touting the fact that he is getting about 15 percent of the vote in New Mexico. I was surprised; I expected it to be higher, given how popular he was in the state.
Gary Johnson is an appealing candidate. He has twice the gubernatorial experience of Mitt Romney, and he governed in a state a little closer to the political center. He has more experience that Barack Obama did when the Illinois senator ran in 2008. Johnson was permitted to debate in one of the many Republican match-ups, and did quite well (which makes you wonder why he was only invited to one).
I had the 2008 Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr, a Georgia congressman, speak at my college to a packed house. College students, westerners wary of government intrusion into the economic and social realm, and voters frustrated by the two-party system and the ideological divide between the two are looking for another alternative, which Johnson gives them. Sure polls and political coverage has ignored libertarians like Barr, Ed Clark and Ron Paul. But as the Colorado polls show, they do so at their own peril.
Johnson is for real, and it is time the political establishment wakes up to the fact. He may not win the 2012 election, but he could both net enough votes to qualify for federal funding in the next election, a spot in the debates, and maybe a spoiler role in swing states like Colorado.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.