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Zirpoli: Libertarian candidates could affect presidential election

Not happy with the two major party choices for president of the United States this fall? The Libertarian Party gives you a third choice. Indeed, for those who feel obligated to vote but don't like their major party choices, the Libertarian Party will be an option in all 50 states.

This year's Libertarian ticket consists of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and his running mate former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. Both are former Republican Party governors and some wonder if they could be the GOP's alternative to Donald Trump in November.

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Writing for Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball website, Kyle Konkik and Geoffrey Skelley reviewed the impact of the Libertarian Party on national elections since the founding of the party in 1971. The party's first presidential candidate, John Hospers, secured only 3,674 out of 78 million votes in 1972. In 2012, however, the Libertarian Party improved to 1.3 million votes or about 1 percent of the total vote. Not a stellar performance for sure, but if a significant number of those votes come from just a few states, they could impact the winner of those states' electoral votes.

Recent polling data suggests that the Libertarian ticket pulls votes equally from Democrats and Republicans. So the impact of the Libertarian ticket, if any, will not be on the national level, but at the state level, and probably limited to a few selective states. In these selective states, such as Colorado or Utah, pulling votes from one major party candidate could swing a state one way or the other.

For example, in the Republican dominant state of Utah, Trump leads Clinton in one-to-one polling by seven points. However, with Johnson as a third choice, Trump's lead drops to three points as Johnson collects 16 percent of the polling data in Gravis Marketing's most recent poll.

Gov. Johnson was also the Libertarian candidate in 2012 and has some experience under his belt. The addition of Gov. Weld, a moderate Republican who won the state house in liberal Massachusetts, could attract moderate Democrats and independents to vote for the Libertarian ticket in November.

In New Mexico, Johnson is best known for his record use of his veto pen. During the first six months in office he vetoed 200 bills, more than all the other 49 governors combined at the time. He earned the name "Governor Veto" and cut spending in New Mexico by 10 percent. At the same time, Johnson is a long-time supporter of marijuana decriminalization and legalization. He has participated in several Ironman Triathlons and he has climbed Mount Everest.

His running mate, Weld, has been all over the map, as one would expect from a Republican successfully running for governor of Massachusetts. He endorsed President Barack Obama's presidential campaign, but recently endorsed John Kasich during his campaign for the GOP nomination. Interestingly, as a young man, Weld served as a staff lawyer on the Nixon impeachment committee with another young lawyer named Hillary Clinton.

One of the ways third-party candidates become better known to the general public is by participating in the national presidential debates. Third-party candidate Ross Perot demonstrated this in 1992 when he secured 19 percent of the vote and took enough votes from President George H.W. Bush to help Bill Clinton win the White House. But Johnson and Weld will need to be polling at 15 percent, according to the standards of the Commission on Presidential Debates to secure a spot on the debate stage. At best, recent national polls show them getting about 8 to 12 percent against Trump and Clinton; not enough to make it to the debate stage — yet.

Where does the Libertarian Party perform best? In 2012, they received 2.14 percent of the vote in Wyoming; not enough to affect the outcome of this Republican state. In 1980, they received 12 percent of the vote in Alaska. Again, since Alaska is a solid red state, the expected outcome was not changed. However, if the 2016 contest is close and if the Libertarian Party receives enough votes in some of the current swing states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah or New Hampshire, they could make a difference in the outcome.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is coordinator of the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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