“If this continues to be a time of economic dislocation ... then given American history, you would expect one or more independent candidates,” Professor Sabato says.
More than half of Americans – 55 percent – say a third party is needed, compared with 38 percent who say the Republican and Democratic parties do an adequate job of representing the American people, according to a Gallup poll this fall.
But whether they’d really throw their support behind Johnson or any other candidate outside the mainstream is difficult to predict.
“This is a very serious time.... This third-party foolishness will be looked at more soberly this time,” says Patrick Griffin, an unaligned Republican strategist and senior fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.
There was a place for a gadfly like Ross Perot in 1992, but most Republicans think he cost George H.W. Bush that election, Mr. Griffin says. People like Johnson “are malcontents, and frankly, they should go on book tour.”
If Americans turn out to have more stomach for the idea than Griffin does, he adds, President Obama will be thrilled because they’d most likely draw votes away from his Republican opponent.
In the swing state of New Mexico, Johnson as a Libertarian would draw 20 to 23 percent support in a three-way race for president, with Obama at 44 to 45 percent, and Gingrich or Romney coming in second, at 28 percent and 27 percent respectively, according to a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) New Mexico survey.