May 29, 2016
If you were busy enjoying the long weekend and missed the ruckus, after a bit of drama, the Libertarian Party just picked their ticket for 2016. I’ve written a few pieces under the assumption that Gary Johnson would be the nominee. It happened, but not on the first ballot.
His VP choice, ex-Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, also required two rounds to gain approval. Weld is new to the Libertarian Party, after spending his career as a moderate Republican, the type that used to regularly win elections in New England, but is now only visible in the Smithsonian.
As such, many delegates were highly skeptical. The final team combines the closest thing Libertarians have to an establishment candidate (Johnson), and a new convert. In a year where Donald Trump hijacked the GOP, and Bernie Sanders is temporarily affiliated with the Democrats, it’s only right that Libertarians got to deal with the party/ideological purity issue too.
The holiday weekend definitely limited exposure to the festivities, but having a contested contest increased the word count written about Libertarians. The folks who decide what the news is are aware there was conflict in one more place, perhaps making it easier for Johnson-Weld to get some TV time over the next week.
The key is to turn upheaval into face time into inclusion in the majority of national polls. It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, or anyone else runs as a #NeverTrump conservative alternative. There are enough voters who abhor the two major party choices to reach double digits by default.
That’s exactly where Johnson finds himself in the few existing polls that include him. Only three examples so far, but he’s at 10 or 11 percent in each. Some of those voters were choosing him, but given his general name recognition and the low profile of the Libertarian Party, it’s likely most were voting against his opponents.
It often feels like Trump takes all the available media oxygen. There’s barely room for Hillary, though her reticence to participate in regular interviews contributes. Once she clears the delegate requirement to lock up the Democratic nomination a week from Tuesday, and there is no remaining schedule of primary events, it will be tougher for Bernie to get coverage.
For the next week, he’ll get air time as he criss-crosses the largest state in the country, one that includes several huge media markets and the entertainment capital. Once that’s out of the way, Johnson-Weld is the only alternative programming. Ideally this gets them included in most polling.
News about those polls will create a positive media loop. The surveys will often show results with and without the Libertarians. This will allow analysis about which candidate Johnson’s presence is harming more. So far, the very limited evidence points to a few more votes being filched from the Democratic side. Regardless of the answer, it’s something else to talk about in the dead period before the conventions.
Decent enough polling numbers (anything equal to or better than the initial results) will let talking heads envision fall debates with a third wheel. Fifteen percent buys Johnson and Weld tickets to the fall debates. There are a few other angles to play. The only presidential nominee with executive experience in government is ex-New Mexico Governor Johnson.
We’ll see who Clinton and Trump pick to join them, but Weld is also an ex-governor, so we’re in the unusual position of having Libertarian candidates with more traditional presidential resumes than at least one of the major party nominees. Neither Hillary nor Trump have ever balanced a government budget. This experience contributed to the nomination drama, but now it’s a benefit.
Yes, it’s an outsider year, but running as a Libertarian is enough outsider credibility by itself. Then there’s the marijuana thing. Johnson supports decriminalizing. He supports legalizing. He ran a cannabis company. Though he’s pledged to stay pot free in office and says he hasn’t used for a few weeks, Johnson has inhaled with great regularity.
It’s another talking point, assuming the media doesn’t decide that real candidates don’t use pot. Given that several states have legalized it, this shouldn’t disqualify him, but it’s hard to know how that ineffable combination of media and public interest plays out. If the greater whole decides this is a three person race, this will help him tremendously in the legalized states.
Johnson is nowhere near an easy overlap for Sanders voters. He wants lower taxes and less government intervention. He figures Weld is good for credibility but he’s not a fit for Sanders voters, while conservative #NeverTrump voters will find him too liberal. I’m nowhere near ready to suggest he’s a contender to win a single state.
However, if we’re being honest about who is a plausible inhabitant of the Oval Office, these guys are at least as qualified as their opponents. That’s assuming (probably safely) that Clinton and Trump pick experienced running mates. Their ideology isn’t ideal for everyone, and this isn’t a dream ticket. But there’s no reason not to include them in the conversation. At a minimum, their presence will have an important influence on how things turn out for Hillary and Trump.
Figure we’ll have a very good idea by June 15 if Johnson-Weld is an afterthought, existing primarily to collect protest votes, or is the most serious third party challenge since Ross Perot in 1992. As long as they play their cards at least adequately over the next couple of weeks, it should be the latter. A minority of voters are satisfied with the major party choices this time.
If they can’t parlay this into a bit of attention and consideration, something is wrong. If you hear Trump regularly bashing the new third wheel, it’s a sign they’re on the right track.