Gary Johnson: Feeling the Bern?

The Libertarian nominee thinks Sanders diehards should give him a look.

Gary Johnson
Chet Susslin
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
June 8, 2016, 4:09 p.m.

He’s running on the Libertarian presidential ticket with a fellow former Republican governor and advocating for smaller government across the board. Yet Gary Johnson believes there’s more of an opportunity to expand his base among the dedicated supporters of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders than conservatives who are opposed to Donald Trump.

In an interview with National Journal this week, Johnson, sporting blue jeans and Nike sneakers, argued his fiscally conservative and socially liberal views will allow him to appeal to disaffected members of both parties. But Johnson cited an online political quiz that found that he agrees with Sanders on more issues, 73 percent, than any other 2016 presidential candidate. He sees this as evidence that the “Bernie or bust” crowd may be more receptive to him than the “Never Trump” crowd.

“Now, obviously we have no commonality with regard to economics and the role of government,” said Johnson, who’s mounting his second long-shot White House bid. “But on the social side, on legalizing marijuana, on dropping bombs, on crony capitalism.… Hey, we’re simpatico.”

A total of 1.3 million Americans cast their ballots for Gary Johnson in the 2012 election, enough for 1 percent of the overall vote. And Johnson sees plenty of room for improvement this time around. Hillary Clinton and Trump are historically unpopular nominees. Forty-four percent of voters want a third-party option for president, according to a mid-may ABC News/Washington Post poll. And William Weld, the former GOP governor of Massachusetts, has signed on as Johnson’s running mate, which he hopes will lend more credibility to the ticket.

Johnson is already posting better numbers than expected. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average puts him at 8.5 percent, compared to 39 percent for Clinton and 38 percent for Trump. And recent surveys suggest he is actually eating slightly more into Clinton’s support than Trump’s. Johnson needs to reach 15 percent to qualify for the general-election debates this fall, and he anticipates he will climb higher as Clinton and Trump try to unite their parties after tough primary battles.

Johnson doesn’t see himself as a spoiler or protest candidate. The former New Mexico governor didn’t specifically name states he intends to target this fall, only broadly stating that he would focus on Western states, while Weld would make their case in the Northeast.

“I really think that there’s an opportunity to win,” Johnson said. “I know that just sounds outrageous, but we are talking about the two most polarizing figures in American politics maybe ever.”

Still, Johnson doesn’t plan to go on the attack, even though he’s previously called some of Trump’s comments “racist.” Instead, he wants to keep the spotlight on his own policy positions.

“My tact is not about dragging anybody down. My tact has always been, ‘I think people are hungry to vote for someone as opposed to the lesser of evils,’” he said. “So I have never been a rock-thrower. Ever.”

Getting his message out will be a challenge, given his small operation, shoestring budget, and lack of name recognition. A recent national Quinnipiac poll showed that 83 percent of voters didn’t know enough about Johnson to form an opinion of him.

Johnson, who is now the CEO of a marijuana-products company, said he has about a dozen staffers on payroll, most of whom are based out of his Salt Lake City office. He said he could add more in the coming weeks, but doesn’t intend to bring on experienced operatives to help guide him through the campaign. Rather, he will continue to rely on his longtime adviser Ron Nielson, whom he called a “genius.”

Johnson also doesn’t have any plans to run TV ads, open additional offices, or visit battleground states in the near future. For now, he’s banking on national press coverage and social media to introduce himself to voters. That’s largely because he doesn’t have much of a choice. The campaign had less than $15,000 in its account at the end of April.

While he didn’t have an exact figure in mind, Johnson said he expects to raise more than the $2.3 million he collected during the 2012 campaign. He added that he hates fundraising, so he’s relying on Weld to do most of the legwork.

“I don’t owe anybody any money. I’m not for sale,” he said. “I’m a horrible fundraiser because I don’t ask anybody for anything.”

The most immediate challenge for Johnson is getting his name on the ballot in every state. Four years ago, he made the ballot in every state except for Michigan and Oklahoma. So far, he has qualified for 35 state ballots, and expects to appear on all 50.

Johnson’s biggest long-term challenge may be proving to voters that he’s a serious candidate, and that the Libertarian Party is a serious party. It didn’t help when a man running to chair the party performed a striptease on stage at the Libertarian convention in Orlando last month.

“The crazies in the Libertarian Party—nobody’s getting hurt,” Johnson said. “It’s really just kind of a sideshow.”

Karyn Bruggeman and Josh Kraushaar contributed

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