Analysis: What constitutes success for Gary Johnson’s presidential bid?
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Douglas MacArthur once said there is no substitute for victory.
And for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, that’s certainly the case. For them, there is no consolation in finishing a close second in this bruising and exhausting race for the White House.
But what about Gary Johnson? The Libertarian Party candidate and former two-term governor of New Mexico has been running a longshot and shoe-string campaign, trying to get some attention but failing — as has every third-party candidate with the exception of billionaire Ross Perot in 1992 – to elbow his way onto the stage at the Presidential debates.
So what constitutes victory for Johnson? A 1 percent showing in the final count? Five percent? Somewhere in between?
“I’d hate to set an expectation,” Johnson told Capitol Report New Mexico in a telephone interview Wednesday (Oct. 31) from his home in Taos, where he was taking a break before going back on the road for the final five days of campaigning. “I should hope we’ll surpass the previous Libertarian Party showing in a presidential election.”
That may not be a daunting task, considering the highest percentage a Libertarian Party presidential candidate has ever received was just 1.1 percent of the vote, (Ed Clark in 1980).
“I hope we can crush that,” Johnson said.
Four years ago, Libertarian Party presidential nominee Bob Barr received just 0.4 percent of the national vote.
“From all the polling, I think we’ll beat that [1.1 percent showing],” Johnson said. “Do we get to 5 percent? We’ll see.”
Five percent nationally seems unlikely. Consider that a recent statewide poll in New Mexico has Johnson receiving 5 percent. If Johnson isn’t going above 5 percent in him home state it’s hard to think he can equal that number nationally.
Polls that do include Johnson’s name along with Obama and Romney have a pretty wide variance. A September 23 Zogby/JZ Analytics poll had Johnson at 2 percent nationally while a poll conducted Sept. 21 by Reason/Rupe had him at 6 percent. A CNN/ORC survey released September 10 had Johnson at 4 percent and the one time Rasmussen Reports included Johnson (in late August) he received just 1 percent.
“Regardless of how well I finish, it will be unrecognized,” Johnson said.
In what way?
“Because of the marginalizing that’s been done by the mainstream media … it would be egg on their face if we ever amount to something in the polls.”
But aside from Johnson’s antipathy for some members of the press, perhaps the biggest factor affecting a Johnson turnout is the calculus individual voters make when weighing whether to vote for a third-party candidate.
You’re throwing away your vote, Democrats and Republicans say.
Johnson has a ready response – “Wasting your vote is voting for somebody that you don’t believe in” — but that line might resonate better if polls showed either Obama or Romney way ahead. Then, a voter who might be open to a message of fiscal conservatism/social liberalism could think, “Well, the race is already decided so maybe I should take the plunge with this Johnson guy.”
But with Romney tightening the race since the presidential debates, perhaps a voter on the fence for Johnson might pass on a third-party candidate.
“Maybe so,” Johnson conceded on Wednesday. “But if you’re unhappy with what the Democrats and Republicans are giving you, I’d contest that a vote for Gary Johnson is how you change things … At the University of Colorado in Boulder recently some Democrats there came out in protest of me because I guess the pro-war, anti-marijuana college Democrats there think I’m taking votes away from Obama. I view it as a compliment.”
Perhaps the more compelling argument to a potential Johnson voter could be delivered in individual states where the outcome of the presidential race is not in doubt.
If you live in California (which Obama will win easily) or Texas (where Romney will win) you can figure a vote cast for a third-party candidate can send a message without affecting the outcome in the Electoral College while still having the vote register for the Libertarian Party in the popular vote.
“I really think the future is in libertarian values,” Johnson says, “especially among younger voters.”
One important thing to keep in mind about Johnson is that he’s different from major party candidates like Obama and Romney who are measured on wins and losses. He’s a movement politician, just as Barry Goldwater was in the early to mid-1960s, whose reason for running is based on ideology rather than victory (although victory is nice, too).
Johnson enjoys arguing libertarian principles and while he doesn’t have the money of a billionaire-turned presidential candidate like Perot, he made enough money in his Albuquerque construction business that he’s financially independent enough to continue as a libertarian figurehead — provided he turn in a respectable showing on Election Day or doesn’t get overshadowed by Ron Paul in the coming months.
“I’m the spokesman for the liberty movement right now,” Johnson said Wednesday and you definitely get the impression he wants to keep going.
I asked him if he’d run for president again in 2016.
“I think the last thing people want to hear right now is somebody announcing they’re running again,” Johnson said. “They’d say, ‘gimme a break.’ ”
But in the same breath, Johnson said, “It’s a possibility. The momentum we have created, all the statewide organizations that are now out there, it would be a shame to let that go.”