In the three weeks since Gary Johnson received the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president, the former governor has been on a nonstop media tour, appearing everywhere from MSNBC to Late Night With Stephen Colbert. Throughout numerous interviews, a consistent narrative has emerged: There’s a credible alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he’s a former two-term governor and so is his running mate. Governor Gary Johnson calls himself “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” and he’s averaging a little over 10% in national polls—but he’s certain to be a spoiler who steals the election from one candidate or the other.
Or so the interviewers say or imply. Johnson, to his credit, is sticking to his guns when it comes to his viability and has declined to express a preference for one of his opponents, insisting that he’s a serious contender.
And he’s right to do so. Emerging polls indicate that Johnson could not only win electoral votes (something that independent candidate Ross Perot never achieved, despite winning nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992), but could also—in admittedly extraordinary, but nonetheless possible, circumstances—win the presidency itself.
Most observers scoff at the idea. Even 12% in the latest Fox News poll seems a long way from victory, and it is. But naysayers forget that Johnson’s target isn’t 50% plus one, as is the case in most two-way races. Trump and Clinton are polling in the 20’s and 30’s when respondents are specifically offered Johnson as an alternative, meaning he could win a state with as little as 34% of the vote, or thereabouts.
Although there isn’t a lot of state-level polling data to analyze, the few polls that have included Johnson look promising. A Gravis Marketing survey of Utah voters, conducted immediately after Johnson clinched the nomination, offers the most hope for Johnson supporters who are working to get a Libertarian into not only the debates but the White House.
The 1,519 registered voters were first asked about Trump and Clinton, as well as a generic “other” option. 36% chose Trump, 29% Clinton, and 35% other. That alone is promising; considering the 2.5% margin of error, “other” could win Utah. But when respondents were offered Gary Johnson in addition to “other,” support for Trump and Clinton dropped to 29% and 26%, respectively, 16% chose Johnson, and 29% other, for a total of 45% who claim they’d vote for someone other than Trump or Clinton today. Even assuming that some will grudgingly vote for them when push comes to shove, these are the kind of numbers that could precede a third-party victory, particularly considering the possibility that Mitt Romney might endorse Johnson.
If Utah’s six electoral votes go to Johnson, that alone could deprive both Trump and Clinton of the 270 required to win outright, though, of course, that would depend on the outcome in swing states. If Johnson managed to win a couple of other states—even states with few electoral votes, like New Mexico and Nevada—a House election would be much more likely.
The process by which the House of Representatives chooses a president has been explained by many writers and is spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, so there is no need to go into much detail here. The basics: The fifty state delegations (not the individual representatives) would each cast one vote for one of the top three winners of electoral votes; in this case, Trump, Clinton, and Johnson.
Could Johnson win in such circumstances? One can only speculate, but considering how many Republican insiders already want to dump Trump, as well as the certainty that he will continue to anger and embarrass them between now and November, it’s entirely possible that a two-term Republican governor will be their first choice by then. Factor in the possibility of Clinton being indicted or rocked by some new scandal, and the notion that a majority could back Johnson doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it might have had he faced different opponents.
Gary Johnson is an underdog, but he’s no fringe candidate or spoiler. He could be the next President of the United States.