If you’re like most Maine voters, you’ve probably never heard of Gary Johnson.
If you have, you’re likely a die-hard Libertarian, a political reporter and/or under the age of 40.
But the former two-term governor of New Mexico and Libertarian Party candidate for president may play a bigger role in Maine’s 2012 election cycle than many could have guessed when Johnson entered the race as a Republican in April 2011.
Johnson provides a segment of Maine’s young Republicans with an option to Mitt Romney after their efforts to boost the presidential campaign of Texas Rep. Ron Paul were thwarted by several controversial decisions, first by the Maine GOP and then by the Republican National Committee.
Johnson also holds appeal for a sizable segment of Maine voters who are more left-leaning than the Democratic candidate on the ballot. His support of medical marijuana, his message on peace and his support of ending U.S. military involvement abroad resonates with many.
While it’s not the first time Maine has had a Libertarian Party candidate on the ballot, it may be the first time that candidate draws enough votes to officially establish the party in Maine. Typically, a Libertarian Party candidate for president will pick up between 0.25 and 0.5 percent of the vote.
“Gary Johnson will significantly outpace that,” Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington predicted in an email message Friday. Melcher wrote that one recent poll that suggested Johnson would pull between 2 and 3 percent of the vote.
“He has tuned his appeal to sound very much like Ron Paul, with calls to audit the Federal Reserve, and I think a lot of Paul’s backers are listening to him,” Melcher said. “Many seem to still be bitter about their battles with Romney’s forces.”
A recent YouTube promotional video, narrated by Johnson, features images of Paul and touts Johnson’s endorsement of Paul in 2008. And during one of two nationally televised pre-primary Republican Party debates, Johnson said if he were the GOP nominee, he would select Paul as his running mate.
“(Paul’s) efforts have changed America; they’ve changed me,” Johnson says in the video. “The revolution he ignited in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans will not fade away.”
Melcher said Maine voters have a track record of voting, in fairly sizable numbers, for candidates outside the mainstream parties, such as when Ross Perot, running as a Reform Party candidate, was able to pick up significant numbers in both 1992 and 1996.
Johnson, wildly popular in New Mexico and touted as being “fiscally conservative” and “socially cool,” will likely become an option for a small segment of Maine’s “undecided” voters, which recent polls showed at about 8 percent of the electorate.
“He has more charisma than most other Libertarian candidates, and younger Paul supporters will find his stance on marijuana appealing,” Melcher said.
But whether that appeal will translate into any kind of coattail effect for other third-party candidates on the ballot, such as those seeking the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, remains to be seen.
One of those U.S. Senate candidates, Andrew Ian Dodge, a tea party-leaning Libertarian from Brunswick, said he thinks Johnson will help him and believes Johnson’s appeal to younger voters should not be underestimated.
Dodge pointed out that many younger voters are not being accounted for in most telephone polls, which depend heavily on land-line connections. Most young voters use cellphones only.
He said many Ron Paul supporters in Maine were so angered by the National Republican Party’s efforts to keep their delegates subjugated during the party’s national convention that they are turning to the Libertarian Party.
“We’ve been told to (expletive) off, and so we are,” Dodge said. “Johnson will get over 5 percent in Maine, partly because Romney is tanking but partly because a lot of Paul’s backers are listening to him.”
If Johnson’s appeal does trickle down the ballot, pulling Dodge along, that could spell trouble for Charlie Summers, the Republican Party candidate for U.S. Senate.
Polling second and 12 to 15 points behind the front-runner, former two-term Maine governor, independent Angus King, Summers will need every Republican vote he can muster if he hopes to win.
And while a lot of focus has been placed on whether the Democrat in the race, Cynthia Dill, a state senator from Cape Elizabeth, will be the spoiler for King, a number of pundits are suggesting it could be the Libertarian offerings on the ballot that spoil it for Summers.
But Melcher, the UMF political scientist, said he didn’t see it quite that way.
Dodge doesn’t have nearly the popular appeal that Johnson does and neither of the two have much of a campaign infrastructure in place in Maine, Melcher said. Also, both are fighting an uphill battle financially.
“Dodge may get a little help from Johnson’s strength, but I do not think Dodge will be a substantial factor in the race,” Melcher said. “He’s not universally liked or even universally taken seriously among Maine tea party activists who would seem to be his base, and I don’t think he’s got the money to build his name recognition.”
While political action committees, presumably supporting Summers, have spent nearly $2 million in Maine on television attack ads against King — Dodge is happy to have people in Freeport willing to put up his lawn signs.
It was also announced Friday that the Democratic Senatorial Campiagn Committee would spend $410,000 on attack ads against Summers in Maine, set to air at the beginning of October.
Johnson’s national campaign is struggling to raise $1 million to get his campaign videos running on television and not only on the Internet.
David Sorenson, spokesman for the Maine GOP, said third-party candidates have always been a factor in Maine elections.
“And those candidates attract votes from both the left and the right,” Sorenson wrote in a message Friday. “We are focused on helping Republican candidates win support from the broadest possible swath of Maine voters, because our message of fiscal conservatism, pro-growth economic policies and government accountability resonates with everybody who gets a chance to hear it.”
But Sorenson had a slightly different message for Dodge during an exchange on the social media site Facebook on Sept. 20. Dodge was lamenting that he and the two other independent candidates were being excluded from some of the U.S. Senate debates in Maine.
“Andrew: Do you think you have a chance of winning? If not, would you prefer Summers to King? If so, why don’t you drop out?” Sorenson wrote. Dodge shot back, rehashing the grievances of Maine’s Paul supporters.
Dodge later said Sorenson was calling for him to drop out of the race because the Maine GOP was worried about him peeling off some who would otherwise support Summers.
Melcher said Dodge’s view might be off and Summers’ support with the most conservative elements of the GOP is stronger than Dodge presumes.
“There isn’t the antipathy toward Charlie Summers among tea party backers that there is toward Mitt Romney, and Summers has looked more and more conservative over the past several months, particularly in his comments on global warming,” Melcher said.
Young voters will be a factor, and like the biggest portion of Maine voters — those not enrolled in either major party — they are not particularly loyal to one party or the other.
Nicola Wells, a Lewiston resident and state director of the Maine League of Young Voters, said it’s not easy to characterize young voters here and in general, they have a dynamic range of political views.
Wells said one thing is clear: Young voters are skeptical and discerning, which may propel more to seek a candidate outside the mainstream.
“I do think there is this desire to change the status quo,” Wells said Friday.
The strategies for doing that range from supporting third-party candidates to working to change the mainstream parties from the inside out.
The league, which has contact with about 6,500 young voters in Maine, is typically more left-leaning. They voted to endorse President Barack Obama’s re-election but chose to offer no endorsement in Maine’s U.S. Senate race.
“There was no candidate (in that race) that passed our threshold for professionalism, experience and well-defined policy views,” Wells said. “In other words, they had no ideas for actual policy to back up their positions.”
Wells agreed with Dodge that young voters are undervalued and often the source of misconceptions.
“Our membership really cares about voting, and there’s this strong misconception out there that young people don’t care about their state or local elections,” Wells said. “But we are all defined by a different context than the generation before us, and we struggle to speak to each other (politically) across generations and to understand each other.”
How much of a factor Johnson’s presidential campaign will be in Maine could also depend on how big of a lead or perceived lead any of the other candidates in the race emerge with, Melcher said.
“If voters on the fence between Johnson and either major-party candidate … conclude that Obama has all four Maine (Electoral College) votes in the bag, they may feel freer to vote for Johnson,” Melcher said. “The bigger the Obama-Romney margin, the better it is for Johnson and Jill Stein (the Green Party candidate for president), too.”