For a relatively obscure politician still recovering from a foreign policy gaffe and being shut out of next week’s first nationally televised presidential debate, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson is exhibiting extraordinary confidence that he can rearrange the political landscape this fall.
Johnson, of course, is the candidate who blanked during a live interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe two weeks ago and couldn’t identify Aleppo, the besieged major city in Syria. He did no better Sunday morning on CNN’s “Reliable Source, when he said he was glad that “nobody got hurt” in the bombing in New York City that left 29 injured or during a stabbing spree in St. Cloud, Minn., that also resulted in dozens of injuries.
Current events clearly aren’t his strong suit, in part because of his general indifference to detailed policy discussions about foreign policy and national security and defense.
Yet Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico who advocates legalization of marijuana and a wholesale dismantling of federal government agencies and regulations, has become a political magnet of sorts for disenchanted conservatives and liberals looking for an alternative to Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls shows Johnson with 8.6 percent support among likely voters, compared with 41 percent for Clinton, 40.3 percent for Trump and 3.1 percent for Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential nominee. What’s more, a recent Washington Post/SurveyMonkey poll of more than 70,000 voters showed double-digit support for the Johnson ticket in 42 states; more than 15 percent support in 15 states; and 19 percent or more support in four states.
While they obviously have no way of winning, Johnson and Stein, to a lesser degree, clearly are cutting into Clinton and Trump support, and could well be a factor in the outcome of highly competitive races in battleground states including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, turned up on CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday evening insisting they could still beat Trump and Clinton if they allowed a place on the debate stage. Johnson is being excluded from the debates because he hasn’t reached the required 15 percent average in five major national polls since Labor Day.
“As crazy as this election season is, I think it could be the ultimate crazy and that is that the two of us [Johnson and Weld] actually do get elected,” Johnson told CBS News correspondent Steve Kroft.
Short of that, Johnson and Weld predicted that unlike previous third party challenges, they would force major changes in politics and effectively break the century old two-party monopoly.
“I think they are dinosaurs, and I think we’re the comet in this whole equation,” boasted Johnson, who will appear on ballots in all 50 states. “And I’m glad for it. I’m proud of it.”
With widespread voter dissatisfaction towards both the major party candidates, Weld said, “We feel a responsibility to offer the country sort of a sober, sensitive alternative.”
Johnson and Weld disagree on whether Clinton or Trump would be hurt most by their candidacy, with Weld indicating that Clinton might be harder hit while Johnson is more focused on their impact on Trump and the Republicans. “I do believe this is going to be the demise of the Republican Party,” Johnson said.
Just as consumer advocate Ralph Nader inadvertently helped Republican George W. Bush defeat Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election running as the Green Party nominee, Johnson and Stein definitely can be spoilers in this year’s contest.
Over the weekend, Carl Bernstein who broke the Watergate investigation with Bob Woodward at The Washington Post, tweeted that “Bill Weld could be a hero—instead of a Nader – if he renounces his own Libertarian candidacy and endorses/campaigns for HRC. Stay tuned.”
The Libertarian Party was founded 45 years ago as an offshoot of the GOP, and over the years, candidates have tended to be fiscal conservatives, highly concerned about government spending and taxation. But they’re also social liberals, supportive of abortion and other women’s rights and highly suspicious of government intrusion on the lives of average Americans.
While 70 percent of Americans still aren’t familiar with Johnson and know that he is running for president, even more are unfamiliar with his policies and platform. Nonetheless, he and Weld have sparked keen interest from many disaffected Republicans and Democrats, including younger voters who strongly backed Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the Democratic primary campaign.
Johnson disagrees that those backing him are bent on delivering a “protest vote” against Clinton and Trump. Rather, he said, it’s a “conciliatory vote” of those seeking an alternative to Republican and Democratic presidential nominees who are saddled with high negative ratings and who are widely distrusted or disliked by average voters.
“We are in a way breaking a glass ceiling,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to lose one minute of sleep ruining this two-party monopoly that is going on.”
Political experts say there is no question that both of the major parties have significant problems within their coalitions.
The boisterous, combative Trump shattered any semblance of GOP unity during the primaries with his relentless attack on his rivals and the party establishment and promoting policies – including the mass deportation of illegal immigrants, a ban on Muslims entering the country and attacks on free trade policies and treaties -- that alienated many party leaders and rank and file members.
Clinton initially was viewed by many in her own party as a natural successor to President Obama and the best bet to preserve Democratic control of the White House. But prolonged controversy over her handling of State Department emails, her coziness with Wall Street, her involvement in the Clinton family foundation and nagging questions about her honesty and judgment have alienated many in her party, especially young voters.
While the race is now considered too close to call, political analysts are in full agreement that it won’t be won by a third-party candidate.
There are such strong structural impediments to third party challenges on the American political system, that none have really gotten off the ground for the past 150 years, according to Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster and political adviser. For instance, he said, Congress is structured along the two-party system so that independents who manage to win elections in the House and Senate have no choice but to caucus with one of the two major parties in order to get significant committee assignments.
The deck is stacked against third-party presidential candidates like Johnson and Stein to create the political architecture and raise the kind of money necessary to mount an effective national campaign and come close to garnering the 270 Electoral College votes needed to claim the presidency.
Wealthy Texas businessman H. Ross Perot came the closest in 1992 when the fiscal conservative who vowed to balance the budget if he were elected “without breaking a sweat” challenged incumbent Republican president George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton.
Perot spent millions of dollars on his campaign, participated in all three presidential debates and at one point during that summer actually led Bush and Clinton in the polls. Nonetheless, he still finished third in the November election with just 19 percent of the vote and didn’t collect a single electoral vote.
He ran again in 1996, but finished with only eight percent of the vote.
“That tells you all you need to know about third party candidates and a third party,” Ayres said.