Why Gary Johnson Can Still Make Libertarian History
Next to Donald Trump, the presidential candidate suffering the roughest media treatment in the last few weeks has been Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson. He’s been mocked after failing to recognize Aleppo, identify North Korea’s leader, or name a living foreign head of state he admires. He was denied an invite to the presidential debates. An odd MSNBC interview in which Johnson talked with his tongue sticking out went viral. And his running mate strongly signaled he’s going to spend his time attacking Trump instead of touting Johnson.
Yet the former New Mexico governor will almost certainly win the highest vote percentage of any Libertarian Party candidate in history. The title is now held by 1980 nominee Edward Clark, who earned 1.06 percent of the vote (his campaign was buoyed by the checkbook of his running mate, David Koch). Johnson is currently registering at 6.7 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average; even if he fades in the stretch, he still should be able to top Clark.
But such a symbolic victory is less enticing for Johnson than the potential prize he could win for his party. If Johnson snags 5 percent of the national popular vote, the Federal Election Commission will classify the Libertarians as an official “minor party,” granting the 2020 nominee a lump sum of cash for the fall campaign, courtesy of the American taxpayer. (And don’t you think for a second that the vehemently anti-big-government Libertarians won’t cash that big government check in a heartbeat.)
The exact amount of federal funds depends on the size of his vote, but Green Party officials – who have been chasing 5 percent for years – estimate that meeting the threshold would yield about $10 million. That may seem like chump change compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars major party presidential nominees routinely raise. But Johnson has gotten this far after raising only $8 million through August. The prospect of knowing the Libertarian Party’s nominee is guaranteed $10 million will allow him or her to hit the campaign trail running, improving the odds of getting into the debates, winning an even larger share of vote and fortifying the party’s place in the American political landscape.
For Johnson to clear 5 percent would require retaining the support he’s getting in the polls once voters cast real ballots. This is far from certain. Third-party candidates often tank at the end. They lack the money for robust get-out-the-vote operations. Their media attention dries up once they are shut out of the debates. And in Johnson’s case, he has compounded his fall campaign challenges with his string of mind freezes.
Or has he? Johnson may be following Step No. 1 of the Donald Trump Method of Political Success: the more crazy things you say, the more media coverage you get.
Such a strategy may not be the best way to crack 50 percent – Trump won the Republican nomination with a plurality – but it may prove an excellent way to hold on to a niche vote. Johnson’s high-profile blundering has successfully boxed out the Green Party’s Jill Stein, who has struggled to get media attention since her August CNN town hall, and is scraping bottom with 2.1 percent in the RCP average. Johnson’s own number is down a tick after his “What is Aleppo?” gaffe – in August his average was a fraction above 8 percent – but he hasn’t collapsed, at least not yet.
Johnson may also be better equipped than past third-party candidates to retain support on Election Day, thanks to social media. In the past, if you didn’t have money for TV ads, you might as well be a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear the sound. Today, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can let your ardent fans know you are still in the arena, giving them reason to believe their third-party vote will mean something.
Finally, Johnson may be further abetted if the latest revelations about Donald Trump cause the GOP to crater. Disgusted Republicans, resigned to a Hillary Clinton presidency, may flock to Johnson as a protest vote. And Clinton skeptics on the left may feel more liberated to support Johnson – who has appealed to progressives with his positions against military intervention and the “war on drugs” -- if they feel Clinton’s margin is so wide that the third-party candidates can’t tip the race to Trump.
But no one should treat voting for Johnson as a one-day protest vote, especially Republicans. A federally funded Libertarian Party is a party that can attract higher-quality candidates, at the presidential and down-ballot levels. It’s a party that just may be able to bust onto the presidential debate stage in 2020. It’s a party that could permanently divide the right, making it exceedingly difficult for Republicans to win the White House, or, in the most apocalyptic of scenarios, make the Republican Party go the way of the Whigs.
Granted, the possibility also exists for the Libertarians to continue attracting support from both the left and the right, mitigating any spoiler effect on Republican Party. And it’s also possible that clearing 5 percent could prove to be a high-water mark for the Libertarians, as it has been for some in the past. For example, the nominee of Ross Perot’s Reform Party in 2000, Pat Buchanan, got a $12.6 million government check after Perot won 8 percent in the 1996 election. Yet Buchanan ended up with less than 1 percent of the vote.
But make no mistake: A vote for Gary Johnson is a vote that could elevate the Libertarian Party out of fringe status, establish a three-party political system and shrink the Republican Party. So before you cast that vote, ask yourself: Is that what you really want?