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Third Party Politics

A Denver Post letter to the editor by Brian Marein outlines a way Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could win the presidency without winning the popular vote. He only needs to win one state.

If no candidate wins an absolute majority in the Electoral College, the election is decided by the House of Representatives. Thus, if Johnson were to win, say, Colorado while Trump and Clinton split all other electoral votes 50-50, the House would pick the winner.

But how realistic is this scenario? At the time of this writing, the best forecasts have Hillary Clinton winning about 347 electoral votesIf, as Marein suggests, Johnson won Colorado, Clinton's electoral count would drop to 338. She only needs 270 to prevent the election from going to the House. In other words, Johnson would need to capture at least 78 electoral votes from states where Clinton is currently leading. If he could win California and either Florida or Clinton's home state of New York, that would do it. Otherwise, he'd need to win at least three blue states. This is a tall order, especially since Libertarians have historically received the bulk of their support in red states.

And then there's the fact that Johnson was a two-term Republican governor in New Mexico. He is far more likely to draw support from Republicans disenchanted with Trump than from Democrats disenchanted with Clinton.  If anything, Johnson is likely to give Hillary an easier path to victory.

But let's move past all that. Let's assume Johnson can find a way to split the electoral college and throw the election into the House of Representatives. Here's the scenario Marein envisions.

Given that Trump and Clinton are the most unpopular candidates in recent history, a divided House might compromise by selecting Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico.

This is possible, particularly with the number of elected Republicans who have expressed their dissatisfaction with Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton cannot win an election in the House of Representatives, because Republicans have 247 seats vs. only 188 for the Democrats. To win, Clinton would need support from every Democrat as well as 30 Republicans. Trump would need the support of 218 Republicans. If at least 30 Republicans refused to vote for Trump, they might be able to convince the rest of their party to coalesce around Johnson. Knowing he was once a member of their party, they might expect him to abandon his Libertarian rhetoric and govern as a Republican.

But what then? Libertarians who thought they had finally elected one of their own would feel abandoned and/or betrayed. Their party would lose credibility with the very people who are vital to keep it going. If a President Gary Johnson wants to have any credibility, he would need to set out an agenda that distinguishes him and his party from the Republicans. But then how would he push his agenda through Congress? The Republican Representatives who elected him would be the ones feeling betrayed. Democrats would be reluctant to rally to his side, unless he found common cause with them. And that's not likely, given Johnson's track record as governor of reducing government scope and size. So where would he find congressional support for a true Libertarian agenda?

The Libertarians and the Green Party keep running presidential candidates every four years, but if they ever want to be taken seriously, they ought to focus their energies on capturing seats in Congress first.

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