But his most important role could come as a spoiler during the general election. Johnson is expected to do well in his home state, where he is still fondly remembered by many voters. His term as governor coincided with a boom in New Mexico, when the state's coffers were overflowing and jobs were plentiful. "You see a lot of name recognition among New Mexicans for Johnson -- frankly, those were the good times," said Lonna Atkeson, who heads the Center for the Study of Voting Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. "It was the '90s, there was lots of money, the economy was booming, and people were really happy. They know him much better than they know Gingrich or Romney."
A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling earlier this month showed that in a three-way race with either Romney or Gingrich as the GOP nominee, and Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee, Johnson would draw between 26 percent and 30 percent of the Republican votes in New Mexico, between 12 percent and 16 percent of Democratic votes, and a majority of independent votes. Crucially, the poll found that Johnson could siphon enough votes from the GOP candidate to help Obama win New Mexico by a huge 17-point margin. He could also draw one or more electoral votes.
Not everyone is convinced that Johnson will have that much impact, even in New Mexico, though. The state delivered Obama a wide margin of victory in 2008, giving him 58 percent of the vote compared to 53 percent nationwide. And Atkeson notes that while New Mexico is considered a swing state, about 50 percent of New Mexico voters are registered as Democrats, 31 percent are Republicans, and 19 percent are independents. In addition, Hispanic voters helped Obama win New Mexico in 2008, and their numbers have only grown over the past few years. "You have a natural bias toward Democrats," she says. "I guess my underlying assumption is that it would be a close race with or without Johnson. It's not clear to me that he'd be the spoiler."
There have also been questions about the reliability of polls from PPP, which is aligned with the Democratic Party, although Matt Ross, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, notes that the firm correctly predicted that Republican Susana Martinez's victory in last year's gubernatorial race as well as her margin of victory. "They hit the nail right on the head," he says. "So I don't think you can argue with their accuracy."
Luckily for Johnson, he's not fixated on how well he polls outside the state. He acknowledges he has little chance of actually winning. While the two-term governor and Iron Man triathlete said he wouldn't be in the race if he did not have at least some hope of winning, he sees himself as more of an agitator and a "messenger" than a real contender. Johnson, who says he believes most Americans are "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" -- which is also how he describes himself -- said his agenda will resonate with an increasingly disillusioned electorate, appealing to both the Tea Party set and Occupy Wall Street backers, as well as many voters who lie somewhere in between.