Virgil Goode, an anti-immigration southerner, and Gary Johnson, a pro-marijuana southwesterner, have little in common, save one thing: They both are seeking to shake up the American presidential race as third-party candidates.
While they have no chance to win the Nov. 6 election, the tight race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney may create the right circumstances for one of them -- or both -- to pull just enough votes in a key state to sway the contest.
The greater risk is for Romney, whose chances of winning the battleground state of Virginia may diminish with Goode, a Democrat-turned-Republican and former U.S. House representative from the Old Dominion, on the ballot.
“If he’s going to hurt anybody, he’s going to hurt Romney,” said Quentin Kidd, government department chairman at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, who added that Goode’s vote will amount to a “haircut” for Romney. “Is the haircut enough to hurt Romney in the final vote count? If Virginia stays as close as it is right now, it’s possible.”
While chances are slim, third-party candidates have impacted presidential elections in the recent past. In 2000, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader became a political outcast after Democrats blamed him for Vice President Al Gore’s 537-vote loss to Republican George W. Bush in Florida. They became convinced Nader’s 97,488 votes in the Sunshine State cost Gore the state and the 2000 election.
In 1992, billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot drew 19 percent of the vote as an independent candidate, helping Democrat Bill Clinton defeat Republican President George H.W. Bush with just a plurality -- 43 percent -- of the vote.
Goode’s presence on the Virginia ballot has prompted the state Republican Party to challenge the qualifying signatures he submitted, and it’s up to the state’s Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Romney ally, to decide whether to remove his name.
“This race is so close that they don’t have to get many votes to make a difference,” said John H. Aldrich, a specialist on political parties at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In addition to Goode and Johnson, Jill Stein is running for president as the Green Party nominee.
Goode, who runs his campaign out of Rocky Mount, Virginia - - a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains where he has spent most of his life -- says he doesn’t expect to siphon many votes from either candidate, and will win support primarily from those who wouldn’t otherwise cast ballots for either Obama or Romney.
“We’ll get some votes from Romney backers, but really, if I were Governor Romney, I would focus on my message and appeal to as many as possible,” Goode, who has four campaign staffers and has raised about $105,000 for his campaign, said in an interview. “I’m going to get some votes in Virginia and across the country from conservatives, because they weren’t going to go vote. They didn’t see that big a difference between Romney and Obama -- because there’s not.”
Goode, the Constitution Party nominee who represented his southwestern Virginia district for a dozen years in Congress, has centered his campaign around his proposal to block virtually all immigration into the country until the unemployment rate -- now at 8.1 percent -- falls to 5 percent. He says he would do so by placing a “near-complete moratorium” on the issuance of green cards that authorize people to live and work in the U.S.
“It’s absurd, in my opinion, to bring in so many persons from foreign countries when the unemployment levels are as high as they are,” Goode says. He also pledges to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education and submit a balanced budget that would slash funding on social programs including food stamps and public housing, as well as on defense.
Romney “wants to tell everyone what they want to hear; I want to tell people what they need to hear, and they’re going to get mad, they’re not going to like it, but we’ve got to cut,” Goode said.
The race in some polls is close in Virginia, where Romney is roughly tied with Obama, with the RealClearPolitics average of polls in the state over the past month showing his edge at less than 1 percent. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College survey shows Obama with a 5-point lead, within the poll’s error margin. Obama won Virginia in 2008 by 232,317 votes, about 6 percentage points over Republican nominee John McCain, an Arizona senator.
Goode “has a core set of supporters there that love him” in southwestern Virginia, Kidd said -- exactly the area where Romney must drive up his vote to counter Obama’s anticipated strong showing in urban areas of Norfolk, Richmond and Hampton Roads as well as Northern Virginia.
Johnson, a former Republican New Mexico governor and the Libertarian Party nominee, advocates legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage and immediately withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He also says he’s in the race to give voice to voters who are fed up with both parties.
“I’m more liberal than Obama on many issues; I’m more conservative than Romney on many issues,” Johnson, who has raised $2 million for his candidacy and qualified for ballots in 47 states and the District of Columbia, said in an interview. “Hopefully, at a minimum, the results in November would show that people are really fed up with this thing, and that would be reflected in votes for me -- not necessarily winning.”
A CNN/ORC International poll conducted Sept. 7-9 found Johnson drawing backing from 3 percent of likely voters, with 51 percent supporting Obama and 43 percent backing Romney. It suggested Johnson would pull more votes away from Romney, who otherwise won support from 46 percent of likely voters when Johnson’s name was not mentioned. Obama received the support of 52 percent of likely voters in a two-way match-up with Romney.
Still, Johnson’s best chance of upending either candidate’s bid is in Colorado, where a marijuana-legalization initiative likely to draw voters sympathetic to him will be on the ballot on Nov. 6. In a Public Policy Polling survey conducted Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, Obama led Romney 49 percent to 46 percent in the state. When Johnson was included in the choices, he drew backing from 5 percent, with Obama’s support falling 3 points to 46 percent, and Romney’s down 2 percent.
“People are going to turn out at the ballot box that wouldn’t ordinarily turn out because of the initiative” on marijuana, said Johnson, who is embarking Sept. 17 on a 15-city tour of university and college campuses, starting in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Obama’s campaign is monitoring Johnson’s candidacy, without sounding alarm bells. They see him as taking equally from both candidates in Colorado and damaging Romney more in most states.
The president holds a slim lead over Romney in Colorado, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls in the state over the past month, in which he has a 3-point advantage. That’s a smaller margin than the 8 percentage points by which he won the state over McCain in 2008.
“If I cost Obama votes, Obama is most responsible for that; if I cost Romney votes, Romney is most responsible for that,” Johnson said.