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Lee Benson
Utahn Ron Nielson poses with a 2012 campaign poster for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. Nielson is managing Johnson's campaign again in 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the year of the long-shot, when a real estate developer famous for firing people wins the Republican nomination, when a 74-year-old hippie gives Hillary Clinton all she can handle for the Democratic nomination, when Cleveland — Cleveland! — finally wins a sports championship, the Libertarian Party has an announcement to make:

This time they’re in it to win it.

Forget the string of defeats — 0 for forever. Since its formation in 1971, the Libertarian Party has nominated a presidential candidate every four years and received 5,114,291 votes — total. Or slightly more than close friends and family and people who owe them money. The best it’s ever done was in 1980 when a man named Ed Clark and his running mate David Koch got 1.05 percent of the vote. It has never won a single state or come close to getting an electoral vote.

So what’s different this time around? Four words: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton.

The two most popular politicians of the two major parties are also two of the most unpopular people ever to run for the presidency. Their disapproval ratings are running at all-time highs, or lows, for presidential candidates.

The mood for another choice is strong in America in 2016, and the Libertarians and their presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, have a game plan to provide a viable alternative. It involves four steps:

• First, gain enough popularity to register at 15 percent or higher in the national polls, thereby earning entrée into the televised debates to be held in September and October.

• Second, win enough states in the November general election to take sufficient electoral votes from Trump and Hillary so that no one emerges with the required 270-vote majority to win the presidency.

• Third, when the race then moves to the House of Representatives, per constitutional mandate, survive the first round of voting between the top three candidates, and in the final vote, whether the other one is Trump or Clinton, prevail by attracting all of the support from the one who isn’t still standing.

• Fourth, plan the inauguration.

Far-fetched? Yes. Possible? Absolutely.

The formation of this strategy goes back to last December when a Utahn, no less, a former student body president at Murray High School named Ron Nielson, sat down with Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, to lay out the Libertarian Party’s campaign plans for 2016.

Nielson, a successful campaign strategist who directed both of Johnson’s gubernatorial wins in New Mexico, had also teamed up with Johnson in the 2012 presidential election, when Johnson also ran atop the Libertarian ticket.

Then, they had no chance and they knew it. Like all third-party candidates, they were in the race to be heard, raise visibility, express their ideology and perhaps set up grander possibilities for the future.

Little did they realize how soon they might be able to cash in.

“I think we actually have a shot; we have a chance,” said Nielson from his consulting company’s office located in a building on South Temple that used to be mining engineer Daniel Jackling’s mansion. “It seems kind of weird when people don’t understand it, but it is completely conceivable that a third-party candidate could prevent anyone from winning this election and forcing it to the House, and it’s very conceivable that he could be the candidate that wins in the House. The two (major) parties are so at odds with each other, the two campaigns, I mean anyone can see it; it’s going to be virtually impossible for either one to vote for the other candidate if it gets into the House.”

In their strategy sessions last winter, Nielson and Johnson kept hoping against hope that Donald Trump’s improbable ascension would improbably continue.

“Everybody said that wasn’t going to happen, but it did, and it’s best-case scenario for us by far,” said Nielson. “If Jeb Bush would have gotten the nomination, or someone else that had different support groups, we wouldn’t be playing this same game. But with Trump getting the nomination and the way Trump has behaved, it’s just been perfect. It’s a script right out of a book.

“This is a situation that may only come around once in a lifetime. There hasn’t been anything quite like this since the Know-Nothing Party enabled Abraham Lincoln to get elected in an atmosphere that was very akin to what we’ve seen with this immigration fight.”

Essentially, Johnson and the Libertarian Party can win by not losing too much. In the general election they only need to earn enough electoral votes to push the race to the House. To that end, Nielson said they’ve targeted states where the unlikely just might happen. On the Democratic side, that means Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, with Oregon, Minnesota and Iowa as more possibilities. On the Republican side, it’s Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and both Dakotas.

If Johnson and his running mate, former two-term Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, were to win every one of these states, they would secure 79 electoral votes — far below the required 270 majority.

But winning any electoral votes at all could matter if the race is close. In one hypothetical scenario, If Trump and Hillary each won 268 electoral votes and Johnson only won, say, Idaho’s four, the race would be deadlocked and off to the House.

Nielson pointed out that to win a state doesn’t require getting a majority of the votes — if three candidates are splitting most of the ballots, a third would be enough.

He also pointed out that if an election goes to the House — something that’s happened only twice in U.S. history, once in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson won over Aaron Burr, and again in 1824 when John Quincy Adams prevailed over Andrew Jackson — it’s a one-state, one-vote situation.

In the House vote, “South Dakota and California are now equal.”

Utah could prove to be a game-changer for the Libertarians. “I think everyone can agree there’s a big fall-off from the Trump wagon in the state of Utah, so I think that opens some big doors,” said Nielson. “And I also think there’s a lot of Bernie supporters who don’t really know if they want to support Clinton, so that creates some space for us. I wouldn’t say it’s the most likely state, that would probably be New Mexico or Colorado, but things change all the time, and Utah is certainly one of the top rung of states and we’ll be making a lot of effort here. Johnson will be here all the time.”

Still, it’s Democratic states that are getting the Libertarians' keen attention, primarily because early polls project Clinton not just as the winner in November, “but pretty handily, by 60 (electoral) votes or so.”

And secondarily because polls show that Johnson, despite being anchored on the far right, is getting slightly more support from the liberal Clinton camp than the conservative Trump camp.

“I think it’s not a lot of big government progressives, but just progressives who don’t see Hillary as the answer,” Nielson said. “On many of the issues, Johnson is probably closer to Bernie (Sanders) than anyone. He’s not for free government giveaways, but he’s for letting people live their own lives without having government control over them.”

It will all be moot if the race isn’t close.

The best thing Trump and the Republicans could do, said Nielson, “is win Florida, Ohio and North Carolina to make this a competitive race.”

At the center of it all is Johnson, a man who had no political experience when he ran for governor of New Mexico in 1994, defeated a two-term incumbent and won two terms.

Perhaps best known for his advocacy of legalizing marijuana, Johnson, said his campaign manager: “Is for smaller government and lower taxes. He supports social tolerance and civil liberties. I think Gary’s in the mainstream of what people in America are really looking for.”

The candidate’s greatest trait, said Nielson, is he gets along with everybody. “He has a very warm personality that people are drawn to. They can trust him; he cares about people as individuals.”

Reporter Ryan Lizza wrote of Johnson in an article published in The New Yorker at the end of July: “Johnson has many flaws as a candidate, but being unlikable is not one of them. If he is allowed to debate Trump and Clinton, the two most unpopular presumed nominees in decades, the most unpredictable election in modern times could get even weirder.”

At his office on South Temple, Nielson can’t wait for that to happen. “You’ve got two divisive, disliked candidates with gigantic negatives winning their party’s nominations,” he said. “I would bet Johnson doesn’t have 3 percent negative. People will be looking for a compromise candidate. He’s it. We want people to understand — this could actually happen.”

Email: benson@deseretnews.com