Two former Republican governors are running for president and vice president on the Libertarian line. They are Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor, and William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts. The Libertarian Party holds its nominating convention in Orlando, Florida, over Memorial Day weekend.
The Libertarian Party could play the spoiler role in 2016 for Donald Trump, just as Ralph Nader did in 2000, but this time helping to tip the election to the Democrat.
Its minor-party counterpart on the left, the Green Party led by standard bearer Jill Stein, is far less likely to draw a comparable level of support from disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters. Sanders himself has already said he'll support the Democratic nominee.
Unlike the typical third party candidates, Johnson and Weld are experienced mainstream politicians. Johnson, a former construction company entrepreneur, served two terms from 1994 to 2002, winning both elections by ten points. Weld was a highly popular and moderate governor of the Bay State. He won re-election by the largest margin in state history in 1994.
Polls are notoriously unreliable on third-party campaigns, especially this early in an election year, when low name recognition understates appeal. But it looks as if the Libertarians could easily take 5 to 10 percent of the total vote and more in key states. Almost all of this will come at the expense of Donald Trump.
A Fox poll conducted Friday had support for Johnson at surprising 10 percent of the national vote.
Once the campaign moves to the general election phase, the Libertarian ticket will get more attention. In 1980, Republican Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois, who could not abide Ronald Reagan, mounted an independent challenge and won just under 7 percent of the vote.
In what seems an increasingly close election, even five points drawn off from Trump in such key swing states as Colorado, Florida, or Ohio, or possibly Arizona, could lock those states into the blue column and provide some insurance for Hillary Clinton.
Of course, many of the Republicans who are most appalled by Donald Trump are far from libertarian. They are traditional business types or social moderates. On the other hand, they are fervent tree-traders -- like the Libertarians and unlike Trump. The presence of a ticket with two former mainstream GOP governors gives them a way to disdain Trump without crossing all the way over and supporting Clinton.
In addition, the Republican Party is home to many genuine libertarians such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and his legions of young supporters. Libertarians tend to support very limited government, both at home and in limiting military adventures abroad. They also are big on rights, such as abortion rights and the right to smoke or grow marijuana, and the right to freely migrate.
Gary Johnson not only supports the right to grow and smoke marijuana. He's a pot entrepreneur, the CEO of a company called Cannibis Sativa.
Trump, with his defense of traditional Social Security and Medicare, and a military stance that swings wildly between intervention and isolation, seems the opposite of libertarian. Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, told the New York Times that Trump's views on Muslims reminded him of Kristallnacht, the Nazi rampage on Jewish shops and synagogues in 1938.
The spurned Republican kingmakers and donors so far have failed to get a high-profile figure like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan to mount a third party run against Trump. But two former GOP governors on the Libertarian ticket could well end up playing that role. Even though most Republican elected officials have fallen in line behind Trump, a lot of Republican voters would dearly like to cast their ballots for someone else.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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