The recent primary season saw valiant battles from both the Republicans and Democrats. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump eventually rose victorious, but they don’t arrive without baggage. Surely, Democrats would prefer that their presumptive nominee didn’t trigger questions about trustworthiness with an email scandal. And Trump has his own allegedly fraudulent practices weighing him down along with divisive rhetoric that embarrasses the GOP. No one could have anticipated that an unapologetic reality star could come close to the presidency, but if this election cycle teaches us anything, it’s that unpredictability reigns supreme.
The upcoming conventions provide an opportunity to reflect upon the chaos. Even the tabloid scandals are crazier than usual. Bernie Sanders may have finally endorsed Clinton, but we won’t know the full effects for awhile. Trump hasn’t grown close to achieving party unity either. With both sides of the political spectrum looking hellaciously messy, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson stands poised as a potential political force. And he could be the wildest card of this knock-down, drag out election season. Let’s dig into the possibilities, shall we?
The Conundrum Of A Third-Party Candidate
By their very nature, third-party candidates take away votes from the two major U.S. parties. And if we’re looking for precedent, there isn’t much success to be found. Teddy Roosevelt sought a third term in 1912 as a Bull Moose Party candidate. He didn’t win, but nabbed the greatest third-party percentage of the popular vote (29%) then and now. The most recent example would be Ross Perot, who shook things up for the Reform Party by capturing 19% of the popular vote in 1992. Perot’s presence resulted in Bill Clinton becoming president by a plurality vote. Clinton (43%) took out incumbent George W. Bush (37%), and pundits argued over which candidate was most affected by Perot. Some say the effect was negligible. But there’s a real concern with a presidential candidate winning without a majority vote.
Becoming a viable third-party candidate is a rough process. One must reach 15% threshold in five national surveys to participate in general election debates. And they must also earn spots on state ballots in order to advance towards the presidency. Johnson believes this is possible, and he may very well be correct. The former New Mexico Governor secured 1.2 million votes in the 2012 election. That was only 1% of the popular vote, but the 2016 election is shaping up to be a much different beast. Instead of battling tirelessly against an incumbent president and an establishment conservative, Johnson’s going up against two “historically unpopular” candidates.
Can Johnson And Bill Weld Unify Their Own Party?
Many types of Libertarianism exist, but since the American Libertarian Party is a small one, outsiders can’t imagine how it would be difficult to unify. Yet members do differ — regarding their levels of civil liberty, laissez-faire capitalism, non-interventionism, and minimal border regulation — somewhat. There are idealists and pragmatists to be found, and they don’t always get along. The divide between these two sides can run deep. But the fissure doesn’t rise to the level of religious right wing vs. moderate Republicans (and Trump’s morphing, mystery brand) or the Wall Street-friendly vs. the very progressive, Sanders-style Democrats.
The appeal of these two running mates must be considered. After capturing those 1.2 million votes in 2012, Johnson is considered the most successful Libertarian candidate in American history. However, his vice presidential candidate may be lacking. Many Libertarians distrust former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld for his party-swapping ways (he previously ran as a Republican for New York governor in 2006 and opted not to run as a Libertarian after losing the nomination). Some see him as not devoted enough, although the Johnson-Weld campaign site holds Weld out as one of the most fiscally conservative governors of all time. He’s a fan of huge tax cuts (did so 21 times) along with being pro-choice and an LGBT advocate. He also drastically cut unemployment during his gubernatorial tenure.
Still, Weld was dismissed as “Republican-lite” during May’s Libertarian Convention in Orlando. Will Johnson’s appeal and charisma be able to override this discrepancy? The campaign website also boasts of Johnson as an incredibly fiscal governor. He portrays himself as a self-made man and means it. Unlike Donald Trump, there were no million-dollar loans from family. Johnson put himself through college as a construction entrepreneur and then employed 1,000 people in that same company. He was known as “Governor Veto” for his love of nixing spending bills, and he regularly slashed taxes while balancing the state budget.
How A Wild Card Can Shake Up This Wild Election
Despite Weld’s Libertarian party difficulties, Johnson could give the major parties a good run. In this race, he’s more likely to take away from the Trump vote. Johnson has taken great pains to distance himself from his GOP counterpart, who he calls “incendiary” and “racist.” He’s also branded Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric as “ridiculous” and “crazy.” Johnson embraces immigration and values immigrants as hard workers who simply want to find work and make a better life for their families. As such, he could capture those Latino voters that Trump has alienated. Not to mention anyone who feels humiliated by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and simply wants to support a fiscally conservative candidate. And there’s buzz that Johnson wins over many more millennials than Trump does.
As far as Clinton is concerned, Johnson’s main weapon could be his desire to end the War on Drugs — which he sees as spawning many systemic problems, including the friction between police and African-Americans — and his wish to legalize some classes of drugs. He believes that decriminalizing marijuana would eliminate much border violence, which is a much kinder proposal than a Trump wall. The policy also does a lot to reel in those voters who previously said they would #FeelTheBern. Some of them may soon #FeelTheJohnson, as ridiculous as that hashtag sounds.
We can hypothesize all day (and feel free to do so) about which major party candidate Johnson could affect most. But the current polls tell the tale of a candidate on the rise. Four years ago, Johnson captured 1% of the vote. Now, he’s sitting close to 10% in most polls. He’s well on his way to viability, and his habit of hitting weekend morning talk shows can only help. If there was any election where a third-party candidate could further shake things up, this one qualifies. And this ride is only gonna get wilder.