Super PACs supporting former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, may play a role in the November election. Richard Shiro/AP
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Dark-horse presidential candidates Gary Johnson and Virgil Goode may not be household names, but with a little help from super PACs, they could peel away precious support from Republican Mitt Romney and possibly even President Barack Obama in some key state races.

The conservative Constitution Party, which seeks to “restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations,” has nominated Goode, a former congressman from Virginia, for president, potentially taking votes away from Romney in what has become a presidential swing state.

Meanwhile, Johnson, a former two-term GOP governor of New Mexico who failed to win the 2012 Republican presidential nod, has been nominated by the Libertarian Party — a perch from which he could throw a wrench in the plans of both Obama and Romney in several swing states.

Already, at least three pro-Libertarian super PACs have registered with the Federal Election Commission to support Johnson. And former Nixon administration operative Roger Stone, famous for sporting a tattoo of the disgraced president on his back, has touted a pro-Johnson super PAC.

Super PACs are allowed to collect unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations to produce political advertisements that are not coordinated with any candidate. They were made possible in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Goode, a staunch supporter of the 2nd Amendment and vocal opponent of abortion, served six terms in Congress — first as a Democrat, then as an independent and finally as a Republican, until he was unseated in 2008. Third-party candidates like Goode have no chance of winning the White House, but one only need look to the 2000 presidential election to be reminded of their potential impact.

When consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party’s candidate, he infamously garnered more than 97,000 votes in Florida, where Democrat Al Gore lost to Republican George W. Bush by just 537 votes. Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes secured the presidency for Bush, even though Gore won the national popular vote.

One recent poll showed Goode drawing 9 percent of the vote in his home state of Virginia, whose 13 Electoral College votes are being sought by both Romney and Obama.

Similarly, a recent poll showed Johnson — an anti-war candidate who supports marijuana legalization and smaller government — receiving 5.3 percent of the national popular vote. That makes him an afterthought as a presidential candidate, but he may still have an impact in battleground states like New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and even North Carolina.

Third-party candidates aren’t always suggested as options in polls. But one survey earlier this summer showed Johnson winning 12 percent of the vote in New Mexico, a state that Obama carried handily in 2008, but where Bush eked out a narrow victory in 2004.

Johnson garnered 7 percent of the vote in a May poll in New Hampshire, which Obama won easily four years ago but Bush carried in 2000. Earlier this month, Public Policy Polling showed Johnson pulling 7 percent of the vote in Colorado where Obama was the first Democrat since Bill Clinton to win the state. Johnson is also polling at 3 percent in North Carolina, another swing state.

Super PAC spending on behalf of minor-party candidates like Johnson or Goode “definitely could happen,” said Rob Richie, executive director of the nonprofit FairVote, which advocates for increased ballot choice.

“Most people have made up their minds between keeping Obama or going to Romney,” Richie continued. “Some people, though, […] if they realized that there was another candidate running, might abandon one of the major-party candidates.”

Super PACs lead to more choices?

Officials with both the Obama and Romney campaigns declined to comment about whether they were concerned about the role super PACs touting third-party candidates could play in the presidential race.

Some third-party activists, though, are keen to harness super PACs — and their ability to raise unlimited funds, which they argue could increase the visibility of their preferred candidates.

“I wish we had super PACs out there supporting our candidates,” said Jim Clymer, who was the national chairman of the Constitution Party until April. He is now Goode’s vice presidential running mate.

“A couple of people who believe deeply in what we’re trying to promote could put us on the map in a way that we haven’t been,” he added. “The reality is that getting your message out takes a lot of money.”

His sentiments are echoed by Libertarian Party activists.

“A libertarian candidate like Gary Johnson doesn’t have the infrastructure behind him that the major-party candidates have,” said Austin Cassidy, the treasurer of the pro-Johnson Libertarian Victory Committee super PAC, which was formed in May.

“If voters have the chance to compare him on an even playing field that could really spark something,” Cassidy continued.

Cassidy’s Libertarian Victory Committee raised only $200 — all from Cassidy’s own pocket — before throwing in the towel earlier this month, but the pro-Johnson Libertarian Action Super PAC has raised $107,500 as of the end of June. The bulk of that money — $100,000 — came from wealthy entrepreneur Joe Liemandt, the Stanford University dropout who founded and runs the software company Trilogy.

Notably, Liemandt’s wife Andra has bundled more than $200,000 for Obama’s re-election efforts, and the couple alone has donated $107,400 to the Obama Victory Fund, which benefits Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Together, they have also donated more than $130,000 to the Libertarian National Committee since 2009.

Wes Benedict, the former executive director of the Libertarian Party who is now the treasurer of the Libertarian Action super PAC, stresses that $100,000 in receipts is “significant,” even if it’s dwarfed by the tens of millions of dollars raised by the pro-Obama and pro-Romney super PACs.

“In Libertarian terms, this is a big step forward,” he said. “We’re in new territory running this super PAC,” he continued. “I hope we make a difference.”

Since it was launched in April, Libertarian Action, which promotes “low-cost, high-quality Gary Johnson materials” such as yard signs, bumper stickers and door hangers on its website, has reported making more than $16,000 in independent expenditures.

Another pro-Johnson super PAC, called Freedom and Liberty PAC, has also raised $100,000, though it has yet to make any expenditures touting Johnson or criticizing his rivals. The group was founded by one-time Johnson aide Kelly Casaday, and its sole donor is Chris J. Rufer, the founder of the Morning Star Company, a California-based agribusiness and food processing company.

The super PACs file their campaign finance reports with the FEC on a quarterly basis, so it’s unknown how much money they have raised since the second quarter ended in June. A few wealthy donors could easily make them more flush with cash. At least one million-dollar contribution has been given to a pro-Johnson super PAC, according to Jim Gray, the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee.

Not all third-party activists, though, think embracing super PACs is a good thing.

“[Super PACs] are squashing competition,” said David Cobb, who was the Green Party’s presidential nominee in 2004. “When the wealthy elite can buy microphones and amplifiers and drown out the rest of us, it is supremely ridiculous to say that that somehow increases the competition of ideas.”

Good things or dirty tricks?

One person with the potential to make a large super PAC splash for a third-party candidate is long-time Republican operative Roger Stone.

Stone was the youngest staffer on Nixon’s infamous Committee for the Re-election of the President, the group that financed the Watergate break-in. He later went on to work with the late Lee Atwater, the strategist who managed Republican George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis. And during the contentious Florida recount between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, Stone was dispatched to supervise the process.

Yet, in February, Stone, who did not respond to requests for an interview, said goodbye to the GOP and registered as a Libertarian after casting a vote for Ron Paul in the Florida GOP presidential primary.

In June, the Huffington Post reported Stone was constructing a pro-Johnson super PAC.

“The American people have never been offered a candidate who is fiscally and economically conservative but socially tolerant,” Stone has said. “With Gary Johnson, you can have the best of both.”

In his writings online, Stone stresses that Johnson has the potential to perform well in many battleground states, particularly in the West — and that Johnson has the potential to win over both supporters of Obama and Romney.

Stone’s name has not yet appeared in any FEC super PAC filings, and so far, his new Libertarian Party allies are cautiously optimistic about his planned endeavors.

“Hopefully he’s up to good things and not dirty tricks,” said Benedict, the former Libertarian Party executive director.

Most political observers argue that outside groups are unlikely to change the fundamental calculus that makes a third-party presidential bid an uphill battle.

Americans Elect is a prime example, according to political science professor Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. The organization launched in 2010 with the hope of getting a centrist political candidate onto the ballot in all 50 states. The group raised more than $35 million — including $5.5 million from billionaire hedge fund investor Peter Ackerman — but it failed to find a willing candidate and has since retreated from the limelight.

“A super PAC can only sell a candidate if there’s a market for him or her,” Sabato said. “I don’t think there is one in this highly polarized year.”

But as Democrats learned in 2000, a third-party candidate need not be a threat to win to have an impact.

For up-to-date news on outside money in the election, follow our Source2012 Tumblr and the hashtag #Source2012 on Twitter.

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Michael Beckel reported for the Center for Public Integrity from 2012 to 2017.