With just under two weeks until the Nov. 6 election, Gary Johnson—former governor of New Mexico, extreme athlete, marijuana advocate and Libertarian candidate for president—is talking about his campaign in the past tense.
"The only way I think I was going to have a chance of winning was to be in the national debates," he says. Needless to say, he didn't make the cut; even a federal court complaint didn't earn him a place at the table in Monday's foreign policy debate.
But on a recent Friday, six volunteers for Johnson's presidential campaign stood at the corner of Cerrillos and Zafarano Roads, resolutely waving signs.
"This is a microcosm, obviously," says Christopher Thrasher, a 27-year-old campaign consultant holding a Gary Johnson sign. "We've got a ton more volunteers."
Few cars honked, but Thrasher didn't seem to mind.
"The real key here is just to get people to know that there is a third option," he says, noting that the Johnson ground campaign is undertaking "all the usual campaign stuff"—door-knocking, phone-banking—on a shoestring budget. (They've raised nearly $3 million—an almost laughable amount compared to the roughly $1 billion raised by the two major-party candidates combined.)
In 2008, Thrasher was a "dedicated Obama supporter." This year, disillusioned with Obama, he's supporting a candidate whose views better align with his own.
But Johnson faces an uphill battle—not just in terms of fundraising, but also in media recognition and ballot access. That he hasn't been invited to any of the big presidential debates has undermined his ability to gain support, and major-party activists have tried to keep his name off the ballot—all of which raises the question: Is a vote for Johnson a throwaway vote?
After his election in 1995, Johnson, a fiscally conservative Republican, earned the nickname "Governor Veto" for issuing more than 750 vetoes during his two terms. Late in his second term, the former marijuana user alienated himself from some Republicans by opposing the war on drugs—a stance that still attracts voters like Thrasher today.
Johnson started his 2012 presidential run as a Republican, but then switched to the Libertarian party in December. If elected, his first priority would be to submit a balanced budget to Congress, calling for a $1.4 trillion—roughly 43 percent—reduction in federal spending.
"Could you imagine the raging debate at the session that would ensue with that document?" he says.
He also wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and repeal Obama's health care law, but supports maintaining some type of social safety net.
Since many Republicans share those views—just as some Democrats support his proposal to legalize marijuana—much of the media coverage around Johnson's campaign has focused on whether he would siphon votes away from President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, particularly in battleground states like Ohio and Colorado. Still, when it comes to voter support, Johnson rarely reaches double digits in the polls that bother to include his name.
Johnson has also faced ballot access issues in places like Pennsylvania, where the state Republican Party hired a former FBI agent to investigate his bid to appear on the ballot.
"Man, you can't make it up," he says. "You just can't make it up!"
In the end, his name will be absent from the ballot in just two states: Oklahoma and Michigan. In Michigan, where the Republican secretary of state invoked a rarely used "sore loser" law barring candidates who switch parties from the ballot, Johnson is running as a write-in candidate.
Carla Howell, executive director of the National Libertarian Party, says that, among the Libertarian faithful, there's been more enthusiasm for Johnson than for the 2008 nominee, Bob Barr. "Gov. Gary Johnson is much more solidly Libertarian [than Barr]," she says, adding that many voters who supported Republican US Rep. Ron Paul's presidential bid may also support Johnson. A party activist for 16 years, Howell says "a lot of people didn't know what the word [Libertarian] was 20 years ago." The national party's membership, she says, has now reached nearly 14,000 members.
While Johnson hopes his candidacy will raise awareness about the Libertarian platform, he says he shouldn't have "been so naïve" about a third-party candidate's ability to break into a presidential race.
"It's not the fairy tale that we all believe it is," he says. "…I was not given an equal shake."
Even so, Johnson's supporters reject the idea that a vote for him is a throwaway vote.
"I'm getting it from both sides," says supporter Todd Yocham. "My Democratic friends are telling me that if I vote for Gary, then I'm taking votes away from Obama, and my Republican friends are telling me that if I vote for Gary, I'm taking votes away from Romney…they keep saying, 'Well, if you vote for him, then you're wasting your vote.' I say, 'Well, no. You can never waste your vote if you're truly voting for somebody you want to vote for.'"