With over five months to go in what’s already become a nasty presidential election, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump hasn’t shied away from abusing his competitors, often giving them pejorative nicknames on Twitter and everywhere else on the campaign trail. Amused Americans might wonder whether Trump will welcome the Libertarian Party’s freshly minted 2016 presidential nominee, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, to the campaign with a similarly dismissive nickname as his other competitors — ‘low-energy’ Jeb Bush, ‘little’ Marco Rubio, ‘lyin” Ted Cruz and, most recently, ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton.
The Libertarian Party nominated Johnson for a second consecutive time Sunday night at its national convention in Orlando, on a holiday weekend when most Americans were more concerned with summertime diversions than politics. But with Johnson leading the ticket, and with Libertarians, however reluctantly, nominating Johnson’s preferred running mate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, as its vice presidential candidate, the party has for the first time since its inception in 1972, nominated a viable presidential ticket.
A ‘Never Trump, Never Clinton’ option in all 50 states
No one disputes that it will be an uphill fight, though the Libertarian Party will likely be the only third party to make the presidential ballot in all 50 states. But, at least on paper, the Libertarian ticket looks formidable. Johnson is enough of an ‘outsider’ to harness the same kind of energy as Trump and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side of the race. For now, the Libertarian ticket is the only one with experience in executive government (not counting, of course, Clinton’s eight years in the East Wing as first lady).
Republican-leaning voters who believe Trump lacks the maturity, temperament, tone or experience for the Oval Office will be cheered by the shared ideological values with Libertarians, such as fiscal restraint and limited government. Democratic-leaning voters who mistrust Clinton will prefer the traditional Libertarian social liberalism on many cultural issues, such as abortion, LGBT marriage and drug decriminalization. Sanders supporters, in particular, who credibly hope that Sanders can defeat Clinton in the June 7 Democratic primary in California and who less credibly hope that Sanders can wrest the nomination from Clinton at July’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia, will find in Johnson a kindred spirit. Johnson would be smart to target Millennial voters who overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and who even more overwhelmingly back Sanders against Clinton.
The ticket includes two proven vote-winners who, in aggregate, won four gubernatorial elections in the 1990s and the 2000s as ‘small-l’ libertarian Republicans in Democratic-leaning states. Even before his formal nomination and his decision to name Weld as a running mate, some polls were already showing that Johnson could win up to 10% of the vote in November. The most important polling threshold, however, is 15%, which would entitle Johnson and Weld to participate in the formal series of presidential and vice-presidential debates later this autumn that millions of American voters will watch. That, alone, would be an impressive achievement for the Libertarian Party.
Red governors in blue and purple states
Johnson, who briefly ran for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination before winning the Libertarian nomination in the same election cycle, served as the governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, coming to politics after a successful business career in construction. As governor, Johnson widely used veto powers to limit state spending and pushed for both marijuana decriminalization and education reform to introduce greater choice and competition among schools.
Johnson can point to his experience spent eight years governing a state with the most proportionally Latino/Hispanic population in the United States (47% as of the 2010 census). In 2016, Latino voters are expected to be crucial in determining the next president. It’s a group of voters than has grown from just 7.7 million in 1988 to 23.3 million in 2012 (and a projected 27.3 million in 2016). Johnson, an avid outdoorsman, Ironman enthusiast and mountain climber who has scaled Mt. Everest, can nevertheless be awkward and a bit wooden on the stump. But he radiates sincerity, and in a race against Trump and Clinton, neither of whom voters seem to like or to trust, his lack of bombast or glib soundbites could appeal broadly, especially among authenticity-craving Millennials.
The 70-year-old Weld is perhaps one of the most charismatic figures of the last quarter-century of American politics. A patrician with a common touch and a politician with a particularly restless composure, Weld was elected a Republican governor in Massachusetts in 1990. Colorful and compulsive, he once jumped into the Charles River to show his dedication to environmental protection. Though he was reelected with 71% of the vote in 1994, Weld quickly grew bored with Beacon Hill, and he waged a spirited challenge against then-senator John Kerry in one of the marquee Senate races of 1996. (Kerry eventually won that race with 53% of the vote, and he later won the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, lost narrowly to George W. Bush and now serves as Clinton’s successor as secretary of state).
When Weld failed to win that race, he accepted Democratic president Bill Clinton’s nomination to become the US ambassador to Mexico, though the arch-conservative North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, opposed to Weld’s permissive views on marijuana use, successfully blocked Weld’s confirmation. Despite a plucky (and failed) attempt to win the Republican nomination for governor in 2005, Weld hasn’t run for political office in a decade — and he hasn’t won an election in 22 years. Weld only narrowly won the nomination on the second ballot in Orlando with 50.6% of the vote, and many Libertarian delegates doubted Weld’s newfound conversion to their party, dismissing him as ‘Republican-light.’
A rare Libertarian turn to the pragmatic
While the mainstream appeal of the Johnson-Weld ticket is clear, the Libertarian Party has reveled for years in its gadfly status, proudly pampering the image of a party unwilling to sacrifice core beliefs in exchange for mere votes. Libertarians hold no seats in either house of Congress, and they hold just one (!) seat in the 50 state legislatures — in Rhode Island, and that’s only because state representative Daniel Gordon was expelled from the Republican Party.
In 2008, it nominated former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, who served as one of the impeachment managers against Bill Clinton in 1998 and who boasted one of the most socially conservative records in Congress, despite becoming a rare Republican defender of civil liberties during the Bush administration. In 1996 and 2000, the Libertarians nominated Harry Browne, a pleasant enough author, but he ran on a platform of ideas that today remain far outside the American political reality: a return to the gold standard, a repeal of the income tax, and the abolition of the Federal Reserve, the Income Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration. Other Libertarian priorities, such as decriminalizing drug use and criminal justice reform, however, have now become popular policy positions for both Democrats and Republicans.
Johnson, too, is something of a gadfly. While his honesty and decency could attract voters from both Democrats and Republicans, it’s a quality that can cut both ways. He served as the CEO of a cannabis company in 2014 and 2015 and, while Americans may be increasingly ready to decriminalize marijuana, it remains to be seen if they are willing to put a cannabis executive in the White House. Johnson, for his part, gamely promises not to smoke marijuana if elected president.
Building out a possible Libertarian coalition
The big question for the Libertarians is whether they will be able to withstand the kind of glaring scrutiny and media gauntlet that they’ve so far avoided, mostly out of irrelevance. It will be crucial for Johnson to win over high-profile supporters, including the leaders of the ‘Never Trump’ movement within the Republican Party. It’s fanciful to believe that Sanders or any top Democrats will endorse Johnson, but it’s not impossible if an ongoing FBI investigation into Clinton’s irregular use of a private email server as secretary of state results in a recommendation for Clinton’s prosecutor or that of her aides.
Many eyes, in particular, will turn to another former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee and vocal Trump critic who has tried this spring to field volunteers a third-party candidacy to oppose both Trump and Clinton. An early Romney endorsement would give Johnson the kind of immediate credibility with the mainstream media and business elites who could fund a serious Johnson effort. Romney’s blessing, in turn, would give cover to movement conservatives, including evangelicals, who distrust Trump as well.
Another potential supporter is David Koch, who ran as the Libertarian vice presidential nominee in 1980. Koch and his brother, Charles Koch, earned notoriety in 2012 as the bête noire of the American left for their prodigious funding of conservative causes. But the Koch brothers have, primarily, supported the libertarian movement and ‘small-l’ libertarian candidates within the Republican Party — founding the Cato Institute, for example, in 1974. This year, they will not be attending the Republican convention in Cleveland, and there are already rumors (since denied) that they might be willing to provide financial support to the Johnson-Weld ticket.
How the West (might be) won
Romney, a Mormon who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, could also help Johnson gain a foothold in Utah, boosting his support in the region where Johnson will almost certainly run strongest — the West, where voters of all stripes have a live-and-let-live attitude that matches up well with the Libertarian Party.
Johnson, who easily won more votes than any other Libertarian presidential candidate in history in 2012 (over 1.275 million votes, 0.99% of the total electorate), won over 3.5% of the vote in his home state of New Mexico and over-performed in Colorado, Montana and throughout the Mountain West. As a stronger potential candidate in 2016, he stands to make more gains in the region. Were Johnson to succeed in winning enough states, he could deny either Trump or Clinton the 270 electoral votes that they need to win direct election, throwing the race to the Republican-held House of Representatives for the first time since 1824.
The Libertarian Party sprang out of the tumult of the early 1970s, when president Richard Nixon courted controversy by scrapping the Bretton Woods system and launching the world into open currencies markets and, of course, doubled down on an ill-fated attempt to win what turned out to be an unwinnable American war in Vietnam. Though it has never achieved mass appeal in the United States, the party sits where many American voters claim to sit, ideologically speaking — fiscally conservative and socially liberal. The party, however, has taken far more extreme positions than conventional parties, and some of its members openly embrace anarchy and deny any legitimate role for government.
The balance between libertarian ideals and pragmatism was on display throughout a zany nomination contest that featured, among others, John McAfee, the anti-virus software entrepreneur (who may or may not have killed someone in Central America). Throughout the contest, Johnson’s rivals tried to trip him up for positions that are widely held by most American officials but that are anathema to Libertarians, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, widely heralded for ending segregation across the South for African Americans. Johnson found himself tripped up even in the presidential debate over the weekend in Orlando when, in front of a national audience, he was forced to defend the government’s right to issue drivers’ licenses. Earlier this month, he was pilloried by another competitor, activist Austin Petersen, over whether he would force a bakery to make a pro-Nazi cake.
It’s those kind of theoretical skirmishes that have kept the Libertarian Party more of a debating society than a real political party. Johnson is no doubt still a long shot for the presidency, but Libertarians, buoyed by the atypical revulsion for both Trump and Clinton, will at last have their prime-time moment.