By Alex Altman
Donald Trump is almost certain to be the most unpopular presidential nominee of a major party in modern times. Hillary Clinton is running a close second. And voters’ historic distaste for Clinton and Trump has sparked a debate about whether a third-party candidate can play spoiler in November, or even pull off a colossal upset.
You would be right to be skeptical. The third-party scenario is a classic quadrennial pipe dream. But this year, the question merits consideration.
The only third party with a chance to be a factor are the Libertarians. That’s partly because they’re the only ones whose candidate is likely to make the ballot in all 50 states. But it’s also because they may sport a ticket with two former two-term Republican governors: Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts. In three recent national surveys, Johnson has cracked double-digits in a hypothetical match-up against Trump and Clinton.
The combination of polling and pedigree has party officials insisting that the long-promised libertarian moment could really be upon us. “The frontrunners of both parties are absolutely hated by giant segments of the electorate,” says Nicholas Sarwark, the chair of the Libertarian National Committee. “We are a serious alternative.”
The first step is for Johnson and Weld to win the presidential and vice-presidential nominations at the party’s national convention, which begins Friday in Orlando. They head into the weekend as the clear favorites. (Johnson, like Weld a former Republican, was the Libertarian presidential nominee in 2012.) And the cast of challengers is not an imposing bunch.
Of the 18 candidates, only a few are believed to have a legitimate chance to upset Johnson. There’s Austin Petersen, a veteran activist from Missouri who sometimes refers to himself as “the Freedom Ninja.” There’s Darryl Perry of New Hampshire, who has refused to file papers with the Federal Election Commission as a form of protest against an institution he says lacks constitutional legitimacy.
Then there’s the wild card: John McAfee, a highly eccentric former software tycoon who fled his adopted home in Belize in 2012 when government authorities sought him for questioning in connection with a murder. “I don’t want to be unkind to the gentleman,” Belize’s prime minister said, “but I believe he is extremely paranoid, even bonkers.” And McAfee’s most recent ad doesn’t suggest otherwise.