WASHINGTON — On the Sunday evening before Election Day, Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson arrived at Bus Boys and Poets, an upscale cafe in the U Street corridor. He showed up alone and largely unheralded. Except for two reporters, nobody else in the restaurant talked with the former two-term governor of New Mexico.
Johnson had come for a debate that perpetual third-party candidate extraordinaire Ralph Nader hosted for the other three non-major presidential candidates. Before he entered a room that had a three-foot wide picture of President Obama above the door, Johnson stopped to talk with a reporter about his campaign in Colorado, such as it is.
Johnson, 59, is under no illusion that he can garner even five percent of the vote in his former neighbor to the north. “I don’t know. We’ll see. Regardless of where we end up, there’s a definite trajectory we’re on,” he said.
Johnson is also plainspoken about his shoestring campaign apparatus.
“Paid staff? What paid staff? My son, Erik, lives in Denver,” Johnson said, adding that a handful of volunteers have helped him canvass supporters and encourage them to go to the polls. “A land line telephone? What is a land line telephone? We have cellphones.”
It’s no secret that Johnson’s campaign has struggled to raise money. His former campaign finance director, Jonathan Bydlak, filed suit in federal court in Virginia for allegedly not paying him in full.
And while Nader’s website had a video of part of the Sunday night debate, Johnson has struggled to receive attention from television viewers and pollsters.
Independent Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said Johnson “has almost no (televised) presence in the state.”
Some polls such, as a CNN/Opinion Research poll last week, do not list him among the presidential candidates on the ballot. When Rasmussen Reports in August and Public Policy Polling last week asked voters their opinion of Johnson, only 24-34 percent registered an opinion.
Johnson is also running against — hiking might be a better metaphor for a man who climbed Mount Everest once — an historical tide. No Libertarian Party presidential nominee has cracked more than 1 percent of the vote since Ed Clark did it in 1980. And Johnson’s bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination did not go as planned. After being shut out of the debates among the GOP’s top candidates, he failed to win a single caucus or primary.
Johnson dropped his Republican affiliation, declared himself a Libertarian, and won that party’s presidential nomination in May. Now the tables are turned. Johnson has the attention of Republicans, or at least that of the party’s top political operatives, and they have taken to steps to force him from the race.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party hired a private detective to investigate his ballot drive in Philadelphia and a Romney aide reportedly sought to block him from qualifying for the ballot in Iowa. The tactics have not worked. Johnson’s name will appear on 48 of the 50 state ballots.
Johnson’s unofficial adviser, Roger Stone, has said the candidate will take away voters from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in swing states such as Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Stone did not mention another prize swing state, Colorado, and his omission might have been deliberate.
That’s because Johnson has attracted the notice of young voters in the Centennial State. Twenty-two percent of voters aged 18-29 said they had a favorable impression of Johnson, according to a Public Policy Polling survey in late October – a level of support more than twice as high then with other age groups.
Some of Johnson’s support comes from his position in favor of legalizing marijuana. On the University of Colorado-Boulder last Monday, Johnson said “Colorado has the opportunity to change worldwide drug policy by voting yes for proposition 64,” Johnson said. “I go around the country telling people, Coloradans get it.”
The crowd of 600 applauded Johnson’s pitch, and though the Boulder campus is undoubtedly a mecca for the marijuana subculture, the students were not alone in their support for Amendment 64. Nearly three-in-four Coloradans 18-29 said they support amending the Colorado constitution to legalize the regulated use of marijuana by adults 21 and older, according to the Public Policy Polling survey.
One political official who spoke on condition of anonymity predicted that Johnson’s pro-pot stand will help him.
“He could do pretty well. They have focused really hard on marijuana legalization. It’s as likely to pass as the other amendments. And if I were running the campaign, that’s the issue I would focus on,” the official said.
Johnson’s backing from young voters was not deep — he received the support of two percent of likely Colorado voters in the Public Policy Polling survey. But Johnson’s support among what is a key demographic of President Obama’s base could be enough to affect the outcome of the race.
Without Johnson in the race, Obama leads Romney by four points in the poll, 51-47. With him in the race, Obama leads by three points, 49-46.
But getting even 2 percent of the vote Tuesday may not be enough to swing the election one way or another.
Although Nader’s 2000 bid arguably cost former vice-President Al Gore the presidency by earning 91,434 votes in Florida, Ciruli does not expect Johnson to do the same to Obama.
“Does Obama lose 10,000 votes because of Johnson and does that make the difference? I don’t know. Maybe if the difference between the two candidates is 5,000 votes,” Ciruli said.
For his part, Johnson remains realistic about his chances. Before he walked into the debate room Sunday night, he was asked if he thought he hurt Obama more than Romney in Colorado.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said, cracking a slight smile. “That’s what it’s showing.”