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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