ST. PAUL, Minn. — Third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Virgil Goode are blips in the presidential race. They have little money, aren’t onstage for presidential debates and barely register in the polls — when survey takers even bother to list them as options.
Yet in a tight race between Democratic President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney that likely will be won or lost at the margins, even blips can be a big deal.
Mr. Obama’s campaign has quietly been tracking the two former Republican officeholders who could be pivotal in key states. Mr. Romney’s campaign insists it’s not worried, even though Republican allies have failed to keep them off state ballots.
“At the end of the day, this is a two-person race as we’re factoring things in like vote goals, turnout,” Mr. Romney political director Rich Beeson said. “We take it into account, but I can’t say I stay up at night thinking about what Gary Johnson or Virgil Goode is going to do.”
Mr. Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, has qualified for the ballot in 48 states. Mr. Goode, a conservative ex-congressman from Virginia, is on ballots in about 25 states. Their standing matters most in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia — states Mr. Obama captured four years ago and that Mr. Romney has worked feverishly to convert.
In 2008, more than 2 million voters chose someone other than Mr. Obama or Republican nominee John McCain. In all but a few states, the winner’s margin was so decisive that a third-party bleed-off was hardly worth noting. Mr. Obama’s electoral college rout made it even less consequential.
This year’s race has shaped up to be tighter. It has hallmarks of 2000, when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader drew finger-pointing from the left as a difference-maker between Republican George W. Bush’s victory and Democrat Al Gore’s loss given the excruciatingly close Florida finish. Jill Stein, this year’s Green Party nominee, is viewed as far less of a potential factor than the two right-of-center hopefuls, Mr. Goode and Mr. Johnson.
With fewer paths to a White House win than Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney especially can’t afford to surrender votes in battleground states.
Mr. Johnson has no problems being labeled a possible spoiler.
“A wasted vote is voting for someone you don’t believe in,” he said. “Vote for someone you believe in because that’s how you change politics.”