Four years ago, McCobin co-founded the group Students For Liberty, which now has some 780 affiliates. He was first turned on to the philosophy in ninth grade when his father gave him a copy of the Ayn Rand novel "Atlas Shrugged," the story of a fictionalized United States on the brink of collapse amid economic depression brought on by increasing government interference and regulations.
At 18, McCobin registered with the Libertarian Party. He plans to vote for Johnson come November, though he believes the outcome of any single presidential race is far less important than spreading the message of libertarianism.
"Ever since the original Bush bailouts and then Obama's program and everything being done by both the Republicans and Democrats to grow government, it's starting to open a lot of eyes," said McCobin, a doctorate student in philosophy at Georgetown. "They're looking for an alternative narrative for what's going on in the world and realizing that libertarianism provides an explanation for what's happening — and a solution to it."
Certainly none of this means that Americans are rushing en masse to change their party affiliation. But it does make for some interesting questions about how this mindset might exhibit itself in the presidential election, especially if the race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney is a squeaker.
In a 2010 paper, Cato concluded that libertarians "are increasingly a swing vote ... a bigger share of the electorate than the much discussed 'soccer moms' of the 1990s or 'NASCAR dads' of the early 2000s, and bigger than many of the micro-targeted groups pursued by political strategists in the 2004 and 2008 elections."
Many of these voters would describe themselves as independents, a group that both candidates desperately need in order to win, said Samples. The libertarian view of limited government and free market economics usually pushes these voters toward Republican candidates, even if their social views are more in line with the Democratic Party.
But as the Cato study pointed out, such voters are not firmly committed to either of the two major parties. It noted that during the George W. Bush years, libertarian-minded individuals moved away from the GOP in response to ongoing wars, government spending and social conservatism, but they returned in 2008 because they believed Obama was a big-government liberal. Samples thinks the 2012 election will look much like 2008.
The unknown, of course, is Johnson, who is working to ensure his name is also on the ballot in all 50 states. Paul supporters may very well desert the GOP for Johnson, especially in Western states where the former two-term New Mexico governor is better known. A June poll in the swing state of Colorado showed Johnson garnering 7 percent support, mostly coming from potential Romney backers.
Brian Doherty, a senior editor at the libertarian magazine Reason and author of a new book about Ron Paul, predicts that most Paul supporters won't vote at all for a presidential candidate, "which doesn't mean they're disengaging but that they won't give their support to someone they don't believe in 100 percent."
He and others take the position of McCobin — that the election itself is far less important than effecting lasting philosophical change over policy and politics.
Big "L'' Libertarians hope their party will be the vehicle for that, and activists such as Wayne Root — the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee — are looking to bring more people into the fold by emphasizing fiscal policy over more controversial libertarian issues such as decriminalization of marijuana.
Root writes a libertarian blog from his home outside of Las Vegas and calls himself a commonsense "suburban Libertarian" who supports home-schooling, low taxes and personal freedom (a la legalized online gambling). He is looking to make his own run for president in 2016 or 2020. A longtime Vegas oddsmaker, Root's prediction is the American public will be ready for a viable third-party candidate sooner rather than later.