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Will Republicans Find Solace in The Libertarian Party?

Members of the Republican Party contemplating a third-party run to defeat a potential Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton match-up might not be welcomed.
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson announces plans to run for U.S. president seeking the nomination of the Libertarian Party during an interview in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday, Jan. 6 , 2015. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)Morgan Lee / AP

As the Republican Party grapples with a potential Donald Trump nomination, third parties - especially those with established infrastructures and widespread ballot access - could become an avenue for alternatives.

The split in the Republican Party over Trump’s candidacy has opened up a wide range of possibilities if a deep divide among Republicans continues to grow. A third party candidacy by a well-known establishment figure is one of those possibilities, and the Libertarian Party, which shares some philosophical ground with the GOP, would seem to be a natural fit.

It’s the one third party in the best position to compete in a general election. It's currently on the ballot in 32 states and is the only third party that has a chance to be on the ballot in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. in November.

The Constitution Party is also considered an alternative but it is far less organized. It is currently on the ballot in 13 states and it landed on only 26 states in 2012. (The Green Party is hoping to gain ballot access in 45 states but its' philosophy is at odds with many Republican beliefs.)

In fact, some people who have already run for president but dropped out have considered the Libertarian ticket. Nicholas Sarwark, the chair of the Libertarian Party, said "several" former presidential candidates have approached him about running for the nomination. He declined, however, to name which of the former candidates he says have reached out.

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It makes sense. Technically there's still time for a prospective candidate. The process for winning the Libertarian Party's nomination is far easier than the Republican and Democratic Party. There’s no expensive primary voting process; instead, delegates are elected at state conventions (which is also done in the Republican and Democratic primaries, but those parties also have popular voting.) Less than half of the delegates have been chosen and the nominee won't be chosen until the party's convention at the end of May in Orlando.

But Sarwark said he doesn't think any of them will actually attempt to do it because their positions don’t “purport to the libertarian platform.”

Convincing libertarians to support a disillusioned Republican would be difficult, he says. Libertarians tend to be purists. They want people who hold their values of individual freedom and a small government.

“You have to convince the delegates that you’re a libertarian or you’re libertarian enough,” Sarwark said. “They are not as likely to look favorably on a Mitt Romney or a (former Texas Gov.) Rick Perry wandering into the convention in Orlando and saying, ‘Hey, look at me. Make me your nominee because we don’t like Trump.’”

Gary Johnson, the likely nominee for the Libertarian Party (as of now), said he hopes he receives a challenge from a mainstream Republican with name recognition.

"I'm hoping that happens because that would mean you have to be a libertarian, right? I don't think there's a libertarian out there," he said with excitement.

A Vehicle, Not a Replacement Party

Instead of the Libertarian Party becoming a replacement for the Republican Party, it could be a protest vehicle for disaffected Republican voters and activists, and maybe even for some with deep pockets.

Sarwark says 2016 is “potentially going to be a break out election for us.”

But anti-Trump movement hasn't coalesced around the idea, yet.

Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, said he'd eagerly accept the anti-Trumper's support.

Johnson said in an interview Tuesday morning that he hasn’t been contacted by the #NeverTrump movement and traditional Republican donors opposed to Trump have not reached out to him. But he’s open to it.

“I’m not courting any of them but hoping that kinda lands on the doorstep at some point,” he said.

Conservatives like Erick Erickson, the editor of RedState, has coalesced a group to try and stop Trump from winning the Republican nomination. At least three outside groups, including Our Principles PAC and Club for Growth, have spent more than $15 million to try and derail his path to the Republican nomination. But the groups have not coalesced around someone to support.

Johnson won the Libertarian Party’s nomination in 2012. While he garnered just 1 percent of the vote in the general election - just over 1 million votes - it was a record for the party. And this year, he says, could be even more promising, predicting that Trump will lead to the "demise" of the GOP.

“We didn’t have the candidates we have today,” Johnson said. “I think Hillary and Trump are the two most ... polarizing political figures in America today.”

Johnson points to exit polls from primary states that show that 30 percent of people in Florida and 43 percent in Illinois and Missouri, and 45 percent in Ohio (all critical general election states) would “seriously consider voting for a third party candidate” if Trump and Hillary Clinton were nominees.

He says he can capture the anti-establishment mood of the electorate. His team points to the Virginia gubernatorial election in 2014. While Democrat Terry McAuliffe won, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis won 6.5 percent of the vote – a record for a third party candidate in Virginia and for the south for the past 40 years, according to the Daily Beast.

An Attempt at Legitimacy

Running as a third-party candidate, even one as organized as the Libertarian Party, Johnson faces huge obstacles. Third party candidates are rarely included in national polling, making it nearly impossible to meet the Commission on Presidential Debate's threshold of 15 percent in national polls to be included in the general election debates.

To alter course, he's suing the commission, the entity in charge of presidential debates. His suit argues that any party nominee that can mathematically be elected president to be included in the debate. In other words: Is the candidate on enough state ballots to theoretically be able to obtain 270 electoral votes?

Johnson said he's in the race to win, but noted that a big feat would be to get 15 percent of the vote in November. He argues that at least that many voters are fiscally conservative, socially liberal and militaristically minimalist.