Former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson is still running for President but has bolted the Republican Party for the Libertarian Party. If Johnson is running for the sake of principles rather than ego or other self-interested motivations, this decision is a wee-bit premature.
Sure, Johnson was treated horribly by the Republican establishment and the media. And if he gets the LP nomination and hurts the Republican candidate in an important Electoral College state, the GOP has no one to blame but itself for not treating him well enough to keep him in the tent.
However, Johnson doesn’t even know yet who the Republican nominee will be and whether he’d actually prefer Obama to that candidate – since he will not win the White House, will almost certainly siphon off more GOP voters than Democrats*, and thus potentially throw a close election to Obama (see Ralph Nader 2000 in Florida for one recent case – though this is a lot less solid than what you might think if Dartmouth and UCLA profs Michael Herron and Jeffrey Lewis are right about the pair-wise preferences of Nader voters).
The siphoning effect is likely to be highest if the Republican Party nominates someone perceived to be more statist like Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney and lowest if the party selects John Huntsman or Ron Paul (indeed, the LP vote share might plummet in the latter case). Now I could see someone like Johnson not really caring whether you get the candidate of RomneyCare or President ObamaCare. But would Johnson really like to hurt a Paul or Huntsman candidacy? If he were the marginal voter, would he really pick Obama over either of those two – or even Romney given what is at stake (hello, Supreme Court seats)? And if he wouldn’t do that as the counterfactual marginal voter, why would he want to have that potential effect as a candidate?
Of course, it is very likely that Gingrich or Romney will get the Republican nod and so Johnson might just be gearing up for that eventuality. But I would have liked him to let things play out a bit before throwing his hat back in the ring. Indeed, I would have liked to have seen him depart the race while endorsing Huntsman or Paul rather than bolting the party. This would have helped his views/positions in the current fight within the Republican Party and given him an opportunity to move the ball in the right direction within a future Republican presidency should his candidate (say Huntsman) win.
I suppose an LP libertarian or Johnson himself could argue that his candidacy will be more high-profile than most LP nominees and could cause the eventual Republican nominee to position himself in a way to combat the siphoning effect. In other words, he could make the Republican nominee pay attention to libertarian issues. But I’m doubtful that this will be the case in any meaningful sense for policy outcomes (even if campaign rhetoric changes marginally) and thus worry that the risk of swinging the election is more likely than any real reward.
A couple of other things about Johnson’s decision:
1. Johnson noted in his campaign launch e-mail that he opposes “expensive foreign wars in places like Libya and Afghanistan.” However, as I noted a while back, he isn’t pure when it comes to advocating foolish, other-regarding military interventions. In particular, he supported the recent US military intervention in central Africa and suggested he might consider it wise/just in the case of Sudan as well. I guess these aren’t ruled out because they aren’t expensive (?!) – which is hard to say ahead of time given the possibilities of blowback and the almost inevitability of mission creep.
2. Johnson is a pro-choice libertarian and noted this as one of his key policy positions. As I argued earlier, a libertarian need not be pro-choice (or pro-life) by definition and thus many libertarians will be turned off by Johnson’s position (which may suggest less siphoning than you might get otherwise).
3. Johnson notes, “I support marriage equality for gay Americans as required by the Constitution.” What does he mean by this, and does this make him a libertarian centralizer as opposed to an advocate of more thoroughgoing federalism as a bulwark for liberty and the principle of subsidiarity? And regardless of whether marriage equality is the right position, is it indeed required by the Constitution?
*Along with other data, David Boaz and David Kirby show the Republican-leaning nature of libertarians by noting that in 2008, John McCain outpolled Barack Obama by 71 to 27 percent among libertarians.