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Candidate: US voters are libertarian but don't know it

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Scott Olson | Getty Images

During election cycles, isidewith.com has become a frequent destination for incorrigible political junkies, many of which use the site's quiz to gauge their philosophical barometer, and identify which politician is best representative of key issues. According to the site, nearly 35 million voters have taken its ubiquitous (and extensive) test that frequently makes the rounds on social media.

Count Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico who's competing alongside more than a dozen other candidates to be the standard bearer for the Libertarian Party in 2016, among that number.

When the ex-Republican and self-made millionaire took the quiz, which gives a percentage value of which candidate is most compatible with a voter's beliefs, it generated a rather surprising result.

"The candidate that most paired up with my beliefs is (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders at 73 percent," the 2012 Libertarian candidate told CNBC in a phone interview this week from New Mexico.

Currently the sole challenger to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Sanders — a self-described socialist — frequently excoriates big business and income inequality, and endorses a plan that combines lavish social spending with large tax hikes. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently estimated Sanders' budget blueprint would slice both growth and job creation. Johnson, however, explained the convergence between his views and Sanders' had its limits.

Read MoreVoters don't pick nominee, we do: GOP official

"I get the allure on the social side and dropping bombs on inequality, but when it comes to being capitalist … obviously Bernie and I are 180 degrees on that test," Johnson added.

The New Mexico native pointed out that in 2012, he was iside.com's top vote getter in terms of key philosophical issues that Americans held dear — a point that leads him to believe that U.S. voters are more open to voting for an independent candidate than polls and prior voting patterns might suggest. There may be some truth to that, as recent figures have shown that voters are abandoning both parties in droves: Independents are currently the largest growing group, according to Pew Research.

Still, most independents tend to cast their votes overwhelmingly for the two major parties, raising the question of why it's been so difficult for alternative candidates to get a breakthrough.

"I do believe that the vast majority of the people in this country are libertarian; they just don't know it yet," Johnson said—not entirely dissimilar to the epiphany, Susana Martinez the current governor of New Mexico, once said she had on the way to becoming a Republican. Martinez, the first Latina and woman to hold the office, told the 2012 GOP convention that she was a Democrat for years until an encounter with Republicans prompted her to declare to her husband "I'll be damned, we're Republicans."

Johnson told CNBC that amid dissatisfaction with current GOP front-runner Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton, the public was eager for an alternative.

"It's a process to where you've got all this buzz over a third party," Johnson told CNBC. Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse and former GOP nominee Mitt Romney have both hinted at voting independent in the general election, Johnson said, "but what they haven't said is that third party is Libertarian. I think that is coming."

Getting a foot in the door at the debates

Yet with a scant 250,000 registered members nationwide, The Libertarian Party's numbers are a far cry from the current levels of Democratic and Republican voters, with the latter turning out in record numbers this primary season to cast votes in a fractious GOP contest.

Libertarians are on the ballot in at least 31 states, a number that Johnson contended will grow to all 50 by November. He said that a touchstone of libertarian acceptance among the public — and by extension electoral success this fall — will be gaining access to the presidential ballot. The Libertarian and Green Parties are suing the Commission on Presidential Debates on antitrust grounds, hoping to break the major parties' "duopoly" on presidential debates.

"The contention is that Democrats and Republicans collude with one another to exclude everyone else," Johnson said, adding that "if you're on the ballot on all 50 states then you should be included in the debates."


'Holding the line' as a change agent

Johnson, who up until recently ran a medical marijuana company, told CNBC that being an elected official is helpful to inspiring masses of voters, a platform he currently lacks.

That said, Johnson's views aren't exactly doctrinaire libertarian. While he embraces marijuana legalization — a shibboleth of most libertarians — and sides with Apple in its dispute with the FBI, he's also on record being sharply critical of Sharia, the most extreme interpretation of Islamic law that he contends is not compatible with Americans' concept of freedom of religion.

Millennials, which Pew data suggests identify primarily with Democratic policies, have flocked to Sanders' candidacy in droves, replicating a phenomenon seen in 2008 and 2012 when retired Republican Congressman and Libertarian firebrand Ron Paul also fired up younger voters.


So how would a Johnson administration approach the major questions of taxation, spending and economic management? The candidate told CNBC that rather than promising a big bang of change, he'd do something most candidates don't often propose: maintaining the status quo.

"Holding the line has a huge positive impact on the system," he said, even as he insisted he was pushing for changes to the system. In such an environment, "things didn't get worse and in that environment things get better."


In a tepid job market, evidence suggests many millennials are eschewing the traditional path to employment and creating their own businesses. Johnson said that model was something that the U.S. would likely see more of in the future.

"Take whatever it is you know and apply it entrepreneurially. The notion that you have to get a job, take that notion and throw it out the window," he said, suggesting other markets would gradually emulate the sharing economy model pioneered by Uber and Airbnb.

"Millenials recognize this and the rest of us don't, but there are trends out there that are very exciting, and they eliminate the middle man," he said. "Uber eliminates the middle man and gives it to the person delivering the goods or services."