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Hundreds of political activists in favor of freedom and limited government are assembling in Florida this weekend for the Libertarian Party's national convention. On Sunday, they will be choosing a presidential nominee. Third-Party candidates have a lousy track record in the United States, but polls suggest this year more Americans might be in the market for an alternative. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Every president since the Civil War has been either a Republican or a Democrat. But Gary Johnson tells NPR's Here and Now, this could be the year the major parties' lock on the White House gets picked.
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GARY JOHNSON: I hope to be the Libertarian nominee, but as the Libertarian nominee, I'm going to be the only third-party guy on the ballot in all 50 states.
HORSLEY: Johnson was a two-term Republican governor of New Mexico. He ran for president as a Libertarian four years ago and won a measly 1 percent of the vote. But a Fox News poll this month found him drawing 10 percent in a hypothetical matchup with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Patrick Murray found a similar result with the Monmouth University poll.
PATRICK MURRAY: There's no doubt that both Democrats and Republicans are looking for another option. And Gary Johnson would seem to be the strongest option right now.
HORSLEY: A caveat - polls at this stage of the election cycle often overstate the strength of third-party candidates. Johnson's tried to boost his appeal by recruiting a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, as his running mate. Weld tells CNN he's always had a strong Libertarian streak.
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WILLIAM WELD: My speech to the Republican convention in Houston in 1992 was I want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom.
HORSLEY: Johnson favors legalization of marijuana, easy work permits for immigrants and a limited military. He admits, though, he's not Libertarian enough for some people. For example, he thinks it's OK for the government to compel a religiously conservative baker to serve a gay couple that wants to buy a wedding cake. That drew a sharp rebuke from two other Libertarian candidates during a FOXBusiness debate this spring.
Austin Petersen edits the Libertarian Republic magazine, while John McAfee made a fortune on anti-virus software.
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AUSTIN PETERSEN: The government cannot stamp out bigotry. The government is not supposed to make us into better people. That's not what the United States was founded on.
JOHN MCAFEE: Why should I be forced to do anything? Am I harming you by not selling you something? No. It's my choice to sell, your choice to buy.
HORSLEY: The candidates hold another debate tomorrow night, and Libertarians will pick their presidential nominee on Sunday. Voters are sometimes reluctant to back a third-party candidate for fear they could inadvertently tip the election in a direction they don't like, as disgruntled Democrats who voted for Ralph Nader may have done in 2000.
Pollster Patrick Murray says that may be less of a concern this year. His survey suggests the leading Libertarian draws support in roughly equal measure from both Democrats and Republicans.
MURRAY: It doesn't look like right now that Gary Johnson's going to play the spoiler. What he's going to do is give discontented voters an outlet, being able to cast their vote for somebody who's other than Clinton or Trump.
HORSLEY: It's an uphill climb, though. Ross Perot was the most successful third-party candidate in the last century with 19 percent of the vote, and he failed to carry a single state. Still, with the likely nominees of the two major parties weighed down by record unfavorable ratings, Gary Johnson tells Here and Now, this year could be different.
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JOHNSON: If Mickey Mouse were the third name in any poll right now given the polarization of Hillary and Trump, Mickey would be at 30 percent. But Mickey's not on the ballot in all 50 states.
HORSLEY: Not yet, anyway. Libertarians are holding their convention in Orlando, just a 10 minute drive from the Magic Kingdom. Scott Horsley, NPR News.
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