Libertarian Party: We're Not Spoilers, But the Third Party Americans Want

Think of all the voters you've met over the recent years who describe themselves as having a libertarian streak -- and it's easy to understand why the country's largest third party sees a bright future on its horizon. Not without a few obstacles, though.

As conservatives cry for smaller government, slashed spending, and balanced budgets, the libertarian philosophy has basked in the national spotlight with the grass-roots popularity of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) -- who ran on the Libertarian ticket in 1988 and remains an honorary lifetime member of the party.

The 41-year-old party has arguably its most prominent ticket yet this year with former two-term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who originally angled for the GOP nomination, and Jim Gray, formerly the presiding judge of the Orange County, Calif., Superior Court.

Party leadership -- and the presidential nominee himself -- hotly contest the suggestion that a vote for the GOP governor would "steal" the election from likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

"There seems to be this very perverse myth that Libertarians steal votes from Republicans," former party chairman Mark Hinkle told PJM. With a focus on civil liberties issues, "I think it's very likely we're going to take far more votes from Democrats than Republicans this time around," he added, calling President Obama a "third-term Bush" on the Patriot Act.

In a state like California, he argued, where there's "no way in heck" that the Republicans would win anyway, "if we steal 100 percent of the votes it's not going to have an impact."

Executive Director Carla Howell argued that there is precious little difference between Obama and Romney on the issues that matter to Libertarians. "Every big government expansion that Obama has backed, Romney has backed, too," she said.

"If you want smaller government, lower taxes, real stimulation of the economy, getting government out of the way, vote Libertarian," she told PJM. "If you want more of the same … then vote either Democrat or Republican."

"Voting for either one of them is going to make things worse," Howell added. "It's going to perpetuate big government. Things are getting desperate in this country. We can't afford to keep big government politicians in office ruining this country. We must change things now. Gary Johnson proposes cutting in the trillions; that's what we need to do to stop bleeding red ink."

On socialization of health care, Hinkle said, another issue of importance to Libertarians in this election, "both Obama and Mitt Romney have bought into it."

The candidate himself said that the only poll he knows of on the "spoiler" question, conducted in his home state, "actually showed that I took more votes away from Obama." A new Reason-Rupe survey, released after Johnson spoke with PJM, found that the "difficult to categorize" Johnson voters could tip swing-state Wisconsin either way.

"I just don't see support for Romney coming from pot smokers," Johnson said, or noninterventionists, or budget-slashers, etc. "I think that I crush Obama when it comes to dollars and cents. … I think I crush Romney when it comes to civil liberties."

He references a recent Reason-Rupe poll that found 80 percent of respondents saying they would or might consider voting for an independent or third-party presidential candidate in 2012. But, he added, "they're not going to vote for a third party if they don't even know who the third party is."

Johnson switched to the Libertarian Party in December after his try at the Republican nod, and was nominated to the Libertarian ticket earlier this month at the party's convention in Nevada. But Johnson told PJM that he's always identified as Libertarian, much like the higher-profile Libertarian-leaning Republicans today.

"You'll always be able to know where a Libertarian stands on the issues," he said of his attraction to the party, which began by reading some books on the philosophy in 1971. He ran as a Republican, though, seeing "I was never going to get elected as a Libertarian -- to this day, that really still is the case."

Are there any true Libertarians in Congress today? Johnson cites Tea Party favorite Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and says he's sure there are "dozens" that lean Libertarian such as Paul; Hinkle says "to a lesser extent" Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is following in his dad's Libertarian footsteps. Howell calls Paul "essentially Libertarian."

"Beyond that, you have to drop way down the ranks to get some slight Libertarians," Hinkle said, adding that Americans probably got their best taste of an independent candidacy when Jesse Ventura won the governor's mansion in Minnesota. "I think the people up there were as frustrated as they are now," he said.