In close race, Johnson could deliver New Mexico for Obama

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Gary Johnson won’t be president, but his Libertarian Party candidacy could affect who wins New Mexico’s five electoral votes — and perhaps the presidency, say some political prognosticators.

Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who announced Tuesday that he would drop out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination to seek the Libertarian Party’s nod, could be a factor in his home state.

“This is a former two-term governor, well-known, polled very well here recently in the PPP poll,” Albuquerque-based political analyst and blogger Joe Monahan told The Daily Caller.

“If he campaigns here and lets his presence be known, I don’t think you are looking at a 2 or 3 percent performance. I think you’ve got a serious issue here for the Republicans going forward in this state because of this Johnson candidacy.”

In a December PPP poll, Johnson attracted 23 percent in a hypothetical match-up with President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is among the current Republican front-runners.

A memo accompanying the poll indicated that, “As a third-party candidate, Johnson would draw 26-30 percent of the Republican votes, 12-16 percent of Democrats, and actually win independents with 31-33 percent.”

It is unlikely that Johnson would actually get as high a percentage in New Mexico as the PPP poll indicated, even if he were to win the Libertarian Party presidential nomination. But in a close race his presence could make a difference, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“My guess is that if Johnson gets even 5 pct in NM, he would make it very easy for Obama to win NM again,” Sabato said in an email. “Maybe Obama will win it regardless but NM can be a swing state, as we saw in both 2000 and 2004.”

While President Obama won New Mexico’s five electoral votes in 2008, the state was one of two that flipped from the Democratic presidential column in 2000 to the Republicans in 2004. Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report told TheDC that it will be “one of a dozen or so states that should decide the presidency.”

The PPP poll shows Obama defeating Romney in a head-to-head match-up by 15 percentage points without Johnson in the race, and by 17 percentage points with him. Still, University of New Mexico Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy director Lonna Atkeson told TheDC she thinks the 2012 race will be tighter than that.

“I expect it to be much closer than in 2008,” the professor said, referring to President Obama’s 15 point drubbing of Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Mexico.

“I expect it with the low presidential approval for Obama, high unemployment, the kind of conditions that we have, poor economy, I expect it to be a tight race. I think that, you know, Democrats are not as happy with Obama as they had hoped.”

But Atkeson said she didn’t think Johnson’s presence on the ballot would matter.

“I think it is fun politically, but … without huge amounts of resources being put into the campaign — and we don’t know yet whether that is possible or not — it’s hard to imagine the sort of Libertarian Party being the third party that attracts a lot of voters,” she said.

Rothenberg also expressed skepticism over whether Johnson will be a deciding factor.

“Johnson will have relatively little impact because people who vote Libertarian for president, especially next year, probably wouldn’t vote for either of the major party nominees if there was no Libertarian on the ballot,” he said.

University of New Mexico political science professor Timothy Krebs said that although Johnson’s support will certainly drop below the PPP poll’s current numbers, his presence will likely aid Obama.

“[A] year from now the data are likely to tell a very different story when voters of all persuasions —  Republicans, Independents and Democrats — choose not to throw their vote away by voting for Johnson,” Krebs told TheDC.

“Because he’s a two term governor, Johnson might, however, perform better than the typical Libertarian candidate in NM and win more than the usual 1 percent. In that case, if he gets to 3-5 percent and the race is tight, my sense is that benefits Obama.”

Monahan said Republicans should “be plotting the strategy early to overcome” Johnson if they think winning New Mexico is critical to their electoral math.

Beyond New Mexico’s electoral votes, Johnson’s presence in the race could solidify President Obama’s lead in the state to the point where he would be able to avoid putting money or time into winning it,  Monahan argues.

“Look at the time. I think that’s the key thing,” he said. “You don’t have to keep coming back … those extra hours can be used in other states.”

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