Governor Gary Johnson

Image courtesy Gary Johnson for President/
photo by Audrey Bond

Gary Johnson Set to Become
Libertarian Nominee

| published May 26, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson hopes that as Americans become disgusted with the tone and tenor of the Presidential race between businessman Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that voters will strongly consider turning toward a third option.

The Libertarian Party—the largest third political party in the United States—will nominate Johnson as its Presidential candidate this weekend at its convention in Orlando. Though there are more than a dozen candidates running for the third party’s nomination, Johnson is the front-runner by a wide margin, and political experts predict he will win easily when delegates vote this weekend in Orlando.

Once nominated, Johnson wants his name to become an important viable option for Americans dismayed by the current political conversation.

Libertarians already have papers filed and the proper legal work completed to ensure that his name will be on the ballot in all 50 states, and Johnson makes no secret of the fact that he hopes to convert some of the frustration now felt by millions of Americans into votes for his third party candidacy. Indeed, Johnson and his strategists see opportunity in the extreme negative polling numbers swirling around Trump and Clinton.

According to the Federal Elections Commission, several media watchdog groups, and the Libertarian Party, voter registration has spiked in the last 12 months—largely the result of hundreds of thousands of new voters entering the political process, many of them fans of Trump, or Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination.

But many voters are vexed by what they already see as a no-win general election in November. Though both Trump and Clinton are not the presumptive nominees of their respective parties, more than half of all Americans tell pollsters that they are generally unhappy with their choices. Recent history shows that when frustration levels are at their highest, third party and independent candidates tend to perform well in November. Ross Perot’s Reform Party movement garnered some 19.2 million votes in 1992, when voters found themselves uneasy with the choice between then-President George H.W. Bush and challenger Bill Clinton.

Johnson, who served two terms as Republican Governor of New Mexico, has run for President before. Qualifying properly at roughly 2% in some polls, in 2011 he briefly entered the 2012 Republican race for President (over the objections of some GOP officials), which enabled him to gain exposure by appearing in televised debates alongside Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and others. Though largely unknown to most debate viewers, his performances were better-than-expected. Later, he switched to the Libertarian race, easily becoming the third party’s nominee that summer. In the general election he pulled-in approximately 1.27 million votes, or 1% of all votes cast that November.

Johnson hopes to repeat that, but better. It will be a challenge. Under current election rules, to qualify to share the debate stage with the nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties, a third party candidate needs to not only be fully qualified and on the ballot in every state, he or she must also reach a minimum level of polling of 15% percent in at least four major polls prior to a general election debate.

Though Johnson is now polling at about 10% in some major national polls, that extra 5% will require a Herculean effort on his part and the part of Libertarian strategists and planners. Cash will help, since it can fuel a media campaign touting Johnson as a viable alternative to Clinton and Trump. But in order to get that money flowing, Johnson will need to gain a lot of traction in the mainstream press—famously fickle when it comes to candidates not clearly within the realm of the two major parties, and generally unreceptive to candidates with a message not easily defined or pigeonholed in a system dominated by a two-party colossus.

Johnson was born in Minot, North Dakota, but moved with his family to New Mexico at an early age. As a young man, he worked as a jack-of-all-trades handyman, sometimes selling his services door-to-door in the evenings and on weekends. Later, he founded a small construction and contracting firm which eventually grew into one of the largest in the state with some 1100 employees.

Defeating incumbent Democrat Bruce King, Johnson was first elected governor in 1994 after running on an anti-spending-lower-taxes message which resonated with New Mexico voters and aligned neatly with the so-called Republican Revolution that same year.

The Libertarian Party was founded in the early 1970s as a reaction to several political factors—the Vietnam War (to which party members were opposed at the time) and the degradation of monetary policy, not the least of which was the removal of the U.S. money supply from the gold standard. The party evolved very quickly into one with a consistent framework which appeals to both liberals (for the party’s social progressivism) and to conservatives (for its adherence to lean fiscal policy and low rates of taxation). The Libertarian party held its first convention in 1972, and began getting its nominees elected to state and local positions in 1978. By the end of the 1970s, it was established as the nation’s largest third party, with organizers and offices in all 50 states.

The Libertarian Party has had two previous high-water marks in terms of percentage: 1980, when nominee Ed Clark and running-mate David Koch pulled in just short of 1 million votes, or about 1% of all votes cast. Most political historians point to third party candidate John Anderson’s presence on the ballot in 1980 as the reason that Clark did not score even better that year. Johnson’s 2012 bid also drew in 1% of all votes cast.

Johnson and his top people hope to make 2016 the new high-water mark for the party by exploiting the anxiety that so many Americans feel for the choices of either Trump or Clinton. He also hopes that U.S. voters will use the moment in history to examine their allegiances to the two major parties—a template which most Libertarians say has done far more damage to the country than good.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Will Sanders Remain in the Fight to the Convention; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; May 17, 2016.

Trump: IRS Audit May Not Be Complete by November; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 11, 2016.