Presidential Hopeful Gary Johnson Jumps GOP Ship to Seek Libertarian Nomination

| - December 29, 2011

In a somewhat anti-climactic announcement at the Round House yesterday, beloved former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in New Mexico political history: He is ditching his bid for the Republican presidential nomination and will run as a Libertarian candidate instead.

Johnson never managed to garner much attention amid higher-profile contenders such as Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and -- until his recent fall -- Herman Cain, and he said he decided to switch parties after failing to qualify to participate in the GOP debates due to his weak showing in the polls.

"Frankly, I have been deeply disappointed by the treatment I received in the Republican nomination process,” he told about 100 or so supporters and reporters at yesterday’s press conference. “The process was not fair and open.”

Jumping ship from the Republican party may seem self-defeating for a candidate who actually hopes to win, but Johnson has acknowledged that he sees himself as more of a messenger than a real contender for the White House.

“For him it was a smart move," said Lonna Atkeson, who heads the Center for the Study of Voting Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. “For him, the only viable option, really, after being written off by all of the major networks, is to go Libertarian.”

Johnson said he's confident his platform will resonate with a great many disillusioned voters, including both the Tea Party set and Occupy Wall Street supporters.

“Never before has there been such an outcry over the two party system in the U.S.,” he said. “The Democratic party has turned their backs on gay rights, marriage equality, their anti-drug war sentiment. And Republicans are no longer the stewards of America’s pocketbook. Neither party is offering up solutions to the problems this country faces.”

Johnson, who proudly boasts of vetoing 750 spending bills during his tenure as governor from 1995 to 2003, proposes cutting federal spending by 43 percent and enacting a 23 percent “fair tax” that he says will stimulate economic growth and distribute the tax burden more fairly. He believes the government should stay out of personal decisions, such as whom to marry and whether or not to have an abortion, and he’s also against federal regulation, gun control and government subsidies. But he is perhaps best known for his long-time support for the legalization of marijuana, “which will save us billions [spent on the drug war] and do no harm,” he said.

Johnson is expected to make a splash in New Mexico, at least, where he served as governor from 1995 to 2003, when the economy was booming.

In fact, a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling earlier this month showed that in a three-way race with either Romney or Gingrich as the GOP nominee, and Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee, Johnson would draw between 26 percent and 30 percent of the Republican votes, between 12 percent and 16 percent of Democratic votes and would win independents. And Johnson could siphon enough votes from the Republican candidate to nudge Obama to victory in New Mexico by a 17-point margin, according to PPP’s poll. He could also draw one or more electoral votes.

Not everyone is convinced that Johnson could cause that much of an upset in New Mexico, however. Atkeson noted that while New Mexico is considered a swing state, most of its voters are registered Democrats, and Obama took 58 percent of the vote in 2008, compared to 53 percent nationwide.

Hispanic voters helped Obama win New Mexico in 2008, and their numbers have only grown over the past few years, added Matt Ross, a spokesman for the Democratic party in New Mexico. “New Mexico is going to be close -- it’s always been a deep purple state,” he said. “But we were eating all the Republican challengers before, and I think we will continue to.”

Johnson will need to look beyond New Mexico, of course, to  achieve the kind of impact on the election that he's hoping to make. One of his first objectives as a freshly minted Libertarian presidential candidate, he said, is to get himself on the ballot in all 50 states. Three previous Libertarian candidates have done so, but only one, Ed Clark, who ran in 1980, reached a million votes, or 1.1 percent.

To read a more in-depth version of this story, go to the Atlantic magazine's web here.