2016 General Election, 2016 Libertarians, State of the Race, Uncategorized

How Far Can Johnson & Stein Get?

June 21, 2016

We’ve spent the past few weeks watching Donald Trump either implode or merely confirm the suspicions of his detractors. Either way, it’s not pretty. I’ll spare you the recap. Yesterday’s firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, followed by the resignation of communications director Michael Caputo after he sent a “ding dong, the witch is dead” tweet in reference to Lewandowski, along with the release of numbers showing the campaign is effectively broke, was a 5 of 10 on the Bad Day Index.

It’s enough to remind me it’s probably time to do a piece on the worst primary to general election transitions in presidential history. Does Trump belong ahead or behind George McGovern picking a guy with electroshock therapy history (this was especially frowned upon in the early 1970s) on the list? He’s reached his highest disapproval ratings. The media is savaging him at every turn. 

His poll numbers are down. You may have even heard he tweeted a poll showing him trailing Clinton by 3 points. If a self-proclaimed winner is bragging about losing….

We’re hearing about a possible convention revolt. Can they pull it off? Who knows, probably not, but it’s a bad sign Trump is facing more opposition now than he was 6 weeks ago. If you woke up from an extended coma to hear these things, you might figure Trump was trailing by 20 points.

He’s not. The most recent national polls have Hillary Clinton up by 5 to 8 points. A survey taken last Friday that forced everyone to choose Trump or Clinton had him trailing by 2. A new Quinnipiac poll has him well within the margin of error in Pennsylvania, and tied in Ohio.

Trump is most certainly losing, trailing, and otherwise underperforming where a winner would find themselves at this stage. Polls are showing roughly 3/4ths of women and upwards of 90% of voters of color are anti-Trump.

This is the demographic nightmare pundits have talked about non-stop for the past year. Even less-educated white males don’t like him as much as you think. Depending on the survey, Trump is anywhere from roughly even to slightly positive with them. Normally, a candidate with these metrics would trail by 20, if not 30 points.

We may have temporarily forgotten, but most voters don’t like Hillary either. Her strategy of mostly staying back and letting Trump explode all over himself is working pretty darn well, but it isn’t suddenly making Clinton popular. If anyone is benefitting, it’s President Obama, who has his best approval ratings in several years and is currently sitting approximately where Ronald Reagan was in June 1988, as his administration was gliding toward a smooth landing.

When Gary Johnson began campaigning for the Libertarian nomination, his argument was the unprecedented dissatisfaction (we often say things like this, but it’s totally true this time) with the two major party candidates made him a viable option. Sure he wasn’t going to win the White House, but there was a clear opportunity to reach 5% of the vote to qualify for federal funding in 2020, and even a decent possibility of hitting 15% in the polls in time to qualify for the official presidential debates.

He chose ex-GOP governor William Weld as his running mate, barely getting him past the Libertarian convention delegates. Suggesting Weld helped force Johnson’s own nomination to a second ballot. The convention drama looked like it would help media interest. Johnson had a pile of interviews scheduled for the day after Memorial Day.

And then Trump squished any coverage by holding a press conference with the express purpose of yelling at the media. Gary who? He is getting included in a decent amount of national surveys. In most cases, pollsters first measure Trump/Clinton and then add Johnson, sometimes along with the presumptive Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Most voters aren’t that informed about Johnson. Maybe they know he served a couple terms as New Mexico governor (especially since he’s often identified as ex-Governor Gary Johnson), some have a vague idea of what a Libertarian is. A few know he ran in the 2012 GOP primaries, or that he served as chairman of a cannabis company.

Bill Weld means something to you if you’re from Massachusetts or a political junkie, but the average American just sees and old, WASPy looking guy. Apparently, he’s a strong fundraiser, which certainly matters for the ticket, but isn’t going to impact how voters see them, just whether they can pay for some ads to get seen.

Both are comparative celebrities compared to Stein, who is the ultimate none-of-the-above candidate at the moment. CNN is giving the Libertarians a night. Tomorrow, they do a two hour town hall, of the same style as during the major party primaries. Chris Cuomo moderates, and will ask Johnson and Weld a series of questions before opening things up to the audience for most of the program.

Most of the primary candidates looked good in this format. It should give these guys a good platform. Johnson isn’t a great speaker or a spectacular interview, so this is will likely be as good as he can sound. Weld hasn’t existed for a couple of decades, so if he still has a fastball, it’s usable here.

Will anyone watch? Not enough people to move the needle. I’m probably more interested in this than 99.85% of the population, and at best I’ll catch it on delay. They’ll need to have a few very interesting responses, the type that CNN will want to play over and over for the next couple days. The sort folks tweet about. Build enough interest inside the media echo chamber to get some Sunday show invitations where they can say a few more compelling things.

The Libertarians have two challenges. First to get noticed. Second to put enough space between them and Jill Stein. For now, on average, when both are offered to voters, Stein is pulling about 30-40 percent of their combined support. The latest CNN poll had them combining for 16%, but the split leaves Johnson far below that crucial 15% line.

Part of the reason voters detest Clinton and Trump is how they sound. Hillary is too partisan, too transparently opportunistic. She’s the opposite of inspirational, even for many who would love to vote for the first female president. She’s also the more popular of the two. Johnson needs to somehow say very compelling things without descending into the same pit as his disgraced opponents.

Not easy. Normally, we would schedule a piece with specific advice for him on the subject, but we don’t feel confident we have his speech patterns and topics down well enough to do so. The 12th strongest GOP primary candidate had far more of a video trail.

So we’re left saying he needs to do “well” and make an “impact.” There are millions of voters who desperately want an alternative. Normally, a third party candidate will fade as Election Day approaches. Voters don’t want to toss their choice away on someone with no chance of winning. They’ll be reminded a vote for Johnson or Stein is a vote for whichever of Clinton or Trump they are supposed to hate more.

However, unless the major party candidates become more appealing, a vote for Door #3 or Door #4 gives voters the chance to say at least they didn’t vote for the winner. If you’re convinced either main option is a disaster waiting to happen, you don’t want to know they’re raising their right hand on January 20, 2017 with your assistance. We have decades of evidence that voters should move to Trump or Clinton at the end, but candidates at this level of disapproval haven’t existed before either.

If the Libertarian town hall leads to adequate ratings or a few good clips for the next couple days, CNN will give Stein her chance at one of these programs once she’s the official nominee and has a running mate. It’s hard to fill all those TV hours after all.

It’s fun to talk about convention revolts or the latest eruption inside the Trump campaign, but below the radar, the other options are already combining for double digits in just about every state or national poll that includes them. That’s without any exposure. It’s up to them to become compelling enough to serve as alternative programming and to get more support when people know who they are than they have as #NotThoseTwoAssholes.

It won’t happen overnight. It will depend on many factors out of their control. But for many voters, the chance to avoid both of the devils they know may prove irresistible. Neither Johnson nor Stein is getting elected, but their chances of greatly impacting the outcome are very high.


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