by Jason Pye | Posted August 29, 2012
Shortly after winding down his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman lamented the lack of outside-of-the-box thinking in his party. "Gone are the days when the Republican Party used to put forward big, bold, visionary stuff," Huntsman explained during an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe. He continued, "I see zero evidence of people getting out there and addressing the economic deficit, which is a national security problem, for heaven's sake."
Huntsman suggested that a "third party movement or some alternative voice," which he hopes will "put forward new ideas," could force the GOP's hand. Of course, the suggestion is a nonstarter for most Republicans. Even with the rise of the Tea Party movement, the thinking for many is that it is better to work inside the GOP.
While it seems that Huntsman has decided to stick with the Republican Party, Gary Johnson, who served as Governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, has taken a very different path in his bid for the presidency.
In many ways, Johnson is what many Republican voters want in a presidential candidate. He is a proven fiscal conservative. The Cato Institute gave him high marks on economic policy during his two terms in New Mexico. In a white paper on Johnson’s fiscal record, the Club for Growth, an influential DC-based organization promoting free market policies, noted his strong support for cutting taxes and spending, pointing out that he “earn[ed] the title ‘Governor No’ after 742 total vetoes of bills over two terms.”
While other candidates running for the GOP presidential nomination were talking about tepid spending cuts, Johnson said that he will submit a budget to Congress that would cut federal spending 43% in his first year. He wants to scale back regulations that are harming the economy while promoting free trade and school choice, and reforming crippling entitlement programs.
Yet despite his free market principles and proven record of cutting the size of government, frequently using his line-item veto power as governor to cut millions in spending, Johnson’s candidacy was not taken seriously by Republican voters and the media. Johnson appeared in only two of 18 Republican presidential debates and forums, many of which required candidates to reach certain polling requirements for inclusion. He did manage one of the more memorable quotes of this part of the process. Answering a question about Obama’s job record during a GOP debate in Orlando, Johnson humorously explained that his “next door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.”
Despite his free market principles, Johnson’s candidacy was not taken seriously by Republican voters and the media.
Efforts to be included in more debates were unsuccessful, despite Johnson’s campaign noting that several polling firms used to determine invitations did not even include him in their surveys of the race. Another problem for Johnson was Ron Paul’s candidacy for the GOP nomination, which took primary voters that could have helped him gain more attention.
Unable to gain traction as a Republican, Johnson decided to run for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination in December. Johnson made the rounds at various Libertarian state conventions, winning most straw polls and gaining a small amount of media attention. In May, Johnson easily won the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination, taking 70% of the delegates. His handpicked running mate, Judge Jim Gray, won a close race against R. Lee Wrights for the party's vice presidential nod.
While there was an upbeat atmosphere after the convention, the Johnson-Gray ticket is facing problems similar to those that have plagued previous Libertarian presidential campaigns — a lack of money and resources.
An advisor to Johnson’s campaign, who asked not to be named, explained that the campaign is “bringing in around $50,000 per week,” which he said is a much higher pace than before the switch to the Libertarian Party. At the point the campaign is “well past the $1 million mark.”
There are obviously other hurdles beyond money. According to the Johnson advisor, the campaign should appear on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, though he notes that Democrats and Republicans are trying to create trouble in Michigan and Pennsylvania. One of the major hurdles for third-party candidates had been Oklahoma, which has the worst ballot access law in the country. But by securing the Americans Elect line in the Sooner State, Johnson’s campaign has reached a milestone unattained by other recent Libertarian campaigns.
Another goal for Johnson’s campaign is inclusion in the presidential debates. Past Libertarian Party presidential candidates made noise about appearing in these all-important debates, but were ultimately unsuccessful. In order to appear in the presidential and vice presidential debates, the Commission on Presidential Debates requires that a third-party campaign receive at least 15% of the vote from at least five national polls.
There is an avalanche of polling data right now coming from battleground states, but Johnson’s name only appears in a handful of them. His name is more difficult to locate in national surveys. Johnson’s supporters have called on firms, loudly and often, to include their candidate in their polling, but have seen very limited success. However, Rasmussen Reports, a polling firm that slants toward the Republican Party, measured Johnson nationally against President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, finding that he brings only 1% of the vote. Johnson’s favorability rating is also underwater, with 16% having a favorable view of him and 20% holding an unfavorable view. The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the 63% of voters who have no opinion of Johnson, presumably because they have never heard of him.
With polls showing very close races in Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, there is a chance that the Johnson vote could make up the difference between President Obama and Romney.
Asked about the debates and the lack of polls including Johnson, a campaign source played coy, not wanting to give away strategy, but added that he expects Johnson to be included in the debates “by the end of September.”
With the discussion on polling, the source also noted that the campaign strategy will be to focus on states in the west, some of which have been more amenable to libertarian positions. Included in the “first-tier states” on which the Johnson campaign will focus their efforts are Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Oregon. With polls showing very close races in Colorado, North Carolina, and Virginia, there is a chance that the Johnson vote could make up the difference between President Obama and Romney.
This is a fact that Libertarians know all too well. According to a statement released earlier this month, the Libertarian Party noted that “Governor Johnson’s poll numbers — and his votes this November — may be the critical factor in “Tipping Point” or battleground states like North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado — where Obama and Romney are 1% to 6% apart.”
But Johnson’s argument all along is that he will “pull votes” away from both Romney and President Obama. Johnson and supporters argue that, while many conservatives are not happy with the Republican nominee on fiscal issues and RomneyCare, there is a faction of liberals who are frustrated with Obama on the further deterioration of civil liberties and what they see as a continuation of George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
For now, at least, Republicans do not seem too worried about Johnson’s effect on their nominee. Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-based talk show host and editor of RedState.com, largely agrees with Johnson’s theory. “I think he will pull roughly equally from them, but I think he'll pull slightly more from Barack Obama than Mitt Romney,” wrote Erickson via email. “The overwhelming majority of people who want to beat Barack Obama recognize that a third party election is not going to happen this year and they want Obama gone.”
"He could really resonate by pushing a message about how both of the major parties really are about big business and not entrepreneurs. But that message isn't getting out right now.”
Erickson believes that a number of “socially left” voters may view Johnson as an acceptable protest vote against President Obama and Romney. But nonetheless he thinks that Johnson’s influence on the race will be limited. He explains that the lack of media attention will prevent Johnson from “expanding on that base of traditional third party support.”
There are ways that Johnson could build on his support, says Erickson. “I think he could really resonate by pushing a message about how both of the major parties really are about big business and not entrepreneurs. But that message isn't getting out right now.”
The view from Libertarian Party activists is mostly encouraging. One longtime member explained that Johnson’s campaign is the best the party has seen, but conceded that the bar is set low. He explained that he would like to see Johnson tailor his message more to states he is visiting, noting, “Voters in more socially conservative states are not going to express interest in gay marriage.”
A similar criticism was found from an independent voter sympathetic to Johnson’s message. “I feel like they spend more time talking about marijuana than anything else,” he said. “With all the problems we have, it's weed that he seems concerned with.”
Though many other Libertarian activists expressed contentment with Johnson’s message of personal and economic liberty, they were more direct in their criticism of interactions with campaign staff and coordinators. Communication breakdowns and a lack of experience among many volunteers were the most frequent concerns.
“My main problem with them has been communication and event planning with state parties,” explained a frustrated party member. While they understand the criticism, campaign sources explain that they do not have sufficient funds to hire professionals and have to rely on inexperienced part-time volunteers, many of whom work hard with limited resources at their disposal.
What does the future hold for Gary Johnson? He knows the odds are overwhelmingly against him this year, but that is not stopping him from looking ahead. During a recent campaign event in Texas, Johnson said that he would again seek the Libertarian Party nomination in four years. It is far too early to predict whether or not party members would be open to the idea, but Johnson’s message is appeasing most libertarians. But whether or not he can attract new members — and new voters, which is the end goal — is a question that will not be answered until November.
Editor's Note: Disclosure statement: Pye worked as a state director for Gary Johnson from February to June of 2012.
Jason Pye is a writer and researcher from Atlanta. He currently serves as editor of UnitedLiberty.org.
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