With the Iowa caucuses behind us and New Hampshire next up with the country’s first presidential primary of 2016, the race is on to determine the top-of-the-ticket nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties, with Ted Cruz as an early victor and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a virtual tie that can’t help but evoke images of hanging chads.

Unless the races are as close they were on Monday night in the Hawkeye state, New Mexico, with only five electoral votes, rarely plays a pivotal role in the presidential primaries—mostly because it's late in the game and one of the last six states in the country to hold primaries in June.

But in November's presidential election, the Land of Enchantment is a politically viable border state that's not to be discounted with its high concentration of Hispanics, a voting block that always proves persuasive on the national scene.

And if there were ever a politician who consistently puts New Mexico on the national political radar, it's our former Gov. Gary Johnson, who announced another bid to run for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in early January, with the party's convention set for Orlando, Fla., over Memorial Day weekend.

Earlier this week, in what's turning into a four-year refrain, Johnson criticized the country's presidential nomination process for beginning in a pair of tiny states like Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which have historically set the stage for the first rounds in Nevada and South Carolina before rushing headlong into Super Tuesday primaries on March 1, when hundreds of thousands of residents in 14 states will cast their votes.

"The candidates from both parties? They woo the far right or the far left, and before you know it, we've got these extremes that aren't reflective of the American people," the 63-year-old Johnson tells SFR from his home in Taos. "I just can't believe that the American people are going to elect someone who wants to build a fence and deport 11 million immigrants, or that they're seriously going to vote for a self-avowed socialist."

He was talking, of course, about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, although any number of GOP candidates, with repeated promises to tighten border security by building a massive wall, could easily qualify, something Johnson says "is one of the whackiest things I've ever heard."

Gary Johnson, at right, sits with former gubernatorial candidate Alan Webber at a hearing on medical cannabis rules last year. Johnson is running for president on the Libertarian ticket.
Gary Johnson, at right, sits with former gubernatorial candidate Alan Webber at a hearing on medical cannabis rules last year. Johnson is running for president on the Libertarian ticket. | Peter St. Cyr

"Having been there in Iowa and New Hampshire, running as a Republican, there are about 30 percent of Republicans in those states who believe that the scourge of the earth has to to do with Mexican immigration," he says. "It's just a made up issue, that they're coming up here and they're siphoning off the welfare system, that there's a reason that America is not as great as it used to be, and I was the one saying it wasn't true, and that's what the primary system perpetuates. It's not grounded in reality, but it sets the pace."

Johnson predicts that Clinton and Trump will eventually prevail as the the party nominees, saying: "I just don't see Bernie Sanders going all the way."

"But who knows?" he adds. "I could be wrong. I certainly never thought that Trump would be the Republican front-runner, either."

As voters wait for Trump's next move, and as Cruz quotes the Bible, owing his victory to God first and Iowan voters second, and as Florida's Marco Rubio sees his third place finish as a win for the traditional GOP establishment set, this much is certain: Neither state is a notable predictor of future presidents, but that doesn't stop politicians from saying what they think Iowans want to hear, adjusting their positions slightly as the primaries go on and candidates face a different set of populaces.

"It's hypocritical," says Johnson.

Which is where the Libertarian Party comes into play, with Johnson just one among dozens of contenders now vying for the nation's top job, its symbol of the porcupine, its needles poking out, reminding voters that there is an alternative to the donkey and the elephant, its key principle that government should stop interfering in the lives of everyday people and quit regulating and taxing them.

"People say that I'm tilting at windmills, but I could go from tilting windmills to center stage if I become the Libertarian nominee," says Johnson, who served as New Mexico's governor as a Republican between 1995 and 2003 and ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 2012, garnering 1.2 million votes, the most in the history of any Libertarian candidate in terms of raw numbers.

In New Mexico during his tenure as governor, he was instrumental in bringing casinos and medical marijuana to the state, but he was mostly known for his anti-tax policies and his unusual combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, not to mention the hundreds of times he brought out his veto pen.

But for now, plenty of Santa Feans, or at least those registered with major parties who plan to exercise their civic duties at the ballot boxes at the "closed primaries" come June, are just as focused on the top contenders as the rest of the nation.

And to that end, a quick survey of locals finds that Sanders appears to be leading the pack.

"Times are changing, and America is changing, and it's for the worse. But you can bet if we elect Bernie, it's going to be for the better," says Molly Smollett, who's in her 60s and says she's long tired of the corporate interests and their deep pockets and the influence they wield in Congress and the presidency, something Sanders has traditionally decried.

Yet from SFR's impromptu survey, an obvious pattern emerged: Clinton was loathed for her lack of authenticity, Sanders was revered for being real, and if it came down to Trump versus Clinton in the general election, many say they'd rather have the billionaire businessman as POTUS than the former secretary of state.

Frank Serrano, long a Democrat in a city of Democrats, is among them. Although he's pulling for Sanders, "because the guy talks from the heart," Serrano, a registered Democrat all his life, says he'd vote for Trump "in a heartbeat," if it came down to that choice.

Democrat Frank Serrano isn't down for Hillary Clinton and says she won't get his vote if she makes it to the general election.
Democrat Frank Serrano isn't down for Hillary Clinton and says she won't get his vote if she makes it to the general election. | Thomas Ragan

"At least Trump funds his own campaign," says Serrano, a former city employee who's now retired. "Sometimes you've just got to trust people and give them a chance and hope they'll do better than the last president who was in office."

Trust in Trump is the furthest thing on the mind of Zack Daood, who was born in Taos and spent 18 years in Jakarta, Indonesia.

"I'd be afraid because my background is Muslim," says Daood, who vows that Sanders will be his first choice.

"I'm not afraid of people looking into my background, and I've got nothing to hide, but I don't think we want a president who would single out a single group of people."

When asked who he's voting for, Bodie Swann, 63, a construction worker, didn't answer the question right away but said, "Heaven forbid if Trump or Ted Cruz gets elected."

Then, after further pressing, Swann said he's supporting Sanders but is convinced Clinton is going to win, because that's "just the way the political system in the United States is rigged."

"She's got the name, the money and the corporate backing," he says.

Bodie Swann wants Sanders, but anticipates Clinton will win.
Bodie Swann wants Sanders, but anticipates Clinton will win. | Thomas Ragan

Rick Ulibarri, a construction worker, opines the opposite: Sanders will win, but he'd rather see Clinton take it.

"I think she has more experience than her husband when he was president," he says, in what becomes a joke: "I think she was running the show because he was too busy with all the women."

Phil Montano, who works at the front desk at the Ft. Marcy Recreational Complex, says it's either Sanders or Johnson, but no way, no how that he's voting for Clinton.

"We've had enough Bushes and Clintons in this country," Montano says.

Up on Canyon Road at the Tea House, at least a pair of employees were "feeling the Bern" for Sanders. Farinesha Bustos and Jessica Brewery represent what pundits say are droves of millennials with like minds.

Farinesha Bustos, at left, and Jessica Brewery, both say they are
Farinesha Bustos, at left, and Jessica Brewery, both say they are "feeling the Bern." | Thomas Ragan

"He's consistent, has a lot of integrity and shares a lot of the ethical and moral beliefs that I do," says Brewery, adding that Clinton voted for the war in Iraq, while Sanders stuck to his guns from the beginning, voting against it, never wavering.

Says Bustos, "Clinton is your typical politician. She flip-flops on everything."

Still, there were a few customers who, when asked for their opinions, said they felt disenfranchised with the entire political system and didn't plan on voting for anyone.

"I haven't voted since the days of the hanging chads," says one, referring to the 2000 election that came down to the wire in Florida, in which Bush was ultimately elected over Al Gore.

Outside the Tea House, however, and far away from the caffeine-drinking, chattering crowd, sat David Vigil.

David Vigil is leaning toward Sanders.
David Vigil is leaning toward Sanders. | Thomas Ragan

He's a Native American artist and pianist who considers himself Hispanic as well.

While he's leaning toward Bernie, it's safe to say Vigil ranks among the disenchanted.

"In the end, Mother Nature wins," says the 67-year-old Vigil, who added, "There's such a thing as gravity. Look, when I jump, something brings me back to the ground. No politician is going to stop the earth from revolving around the sun, and no matter who is president, we still have to pay our bills, and nobody is really going to help us out."