It’s not easy being part of a third party in America, the electoral system strongly discourages more than two parties, so most people don’t even know that there are other parties let alone their polices. In 2012, the Libertarian nominee for President, Gary Johnson, got 1% of the vote and considered this a success. Yet there is talk that this year could be different, that the polls indicate this time the Libertarians will have a breakout success. While Johnson obviously won’t win, perhaps this year the Libertarians will gain national significance and even swing the election.
Johnson is betting on unprecedented unpopularity of both the Republican and Democratic candidates pushing voters in search of a third option. Hillary Clinton is facing a tough primary battle from Bernie Sanders and many see her as too close to the establishment to improve the country. Will the millions of Sanders fans rally around Clinton or are they vulnerable to defection? On the Republican side, Donald Trump is suffering from extremely high negatives and a lot of people are disgusted by his crude nature. Even leading Republicans are reluctant to endorse him.
Johnson is hoping that he can step into this gap and siphon off votes from two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in history. Two recent polls have put him at 10% which would be a historic victory. A candidate must be polling at 15% in order to be included in the debates, a feat Libertarians are hoping Johnston might achieve. Even receiving 5% of the vote is enough to receive federal funding, which would be a huge boost to the Libertarian Party, even if they do consider government money to be tainted. Libertarians hope that they can draw votes from both the left and the right, they describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. So rather than splitting the vote of one party, they claim they can draw equal votes from both parties.
However, I feel I must rain on this parade. Gary Johnson has been included in hardly any polls so it would be rash to jump to conclusions based on only two. Candidates regularly bounce around by 5 or 10 points and the primaries saw a huge host of outliers. Libertarians have been much quieter about less pleasing polls such as the two that had him on only 4-5%. In fact Johnson regularly polled at 5% in 2012 (in the few polls that included him), he even received 5% in a poll the week of the vote, yet in the end he only received 1%. This far out from the vote most voters haven’t made up their mind and still have doubts about the nominee. Even the media coverage he has been receiving might merely be due to the novelty factor and good timing in having the convention during a slow news cycle.
While Gary Johnson claims he can attract both Democrats and Republicans, in reality he offers a lot more to Republicans than to Democrats. This is most obvious in the fact that both Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld are former Republican governors. There has long been a Libertarian element in the Republican Party and Libertarians frequently run for Republican nomination but never for the Democratic. After all, voters do not value social issues as much as economic issues. Elections are almost always decided by issues such as the economy, unemployment and taxation, issues like drugs and LGBT rights are not as high of a priority. So while there is a handful of issues where Johnson is attractive to Democrats such as on legalisation of marijuana, civil liberties and immigration, these are dwarfed by the huge number of areas where he is diametrically opposed.
It is going to be extremely difficult to win over Sanders voters when Johnson has pretty much the opposite economic policies (and Sanders campaign was heavily focused on economic policies). Sanders wanted universal healthcare, higher taxes on the rich, more workers rights, stronger unions and tighter banking regulation, Johnson wants private healthcare, massive tax cuts, cutting all regulations and is anti-union. Sanders wanted free university education, Johnson not only opposes this, he also wants to abolish government support for student loans. I fail to see how he can attract many Democrats when he is fundamentally opposed to most of their core polices. Any Democrats leaning towards Johnson would be quickly pushed away once they learned that he wants to cut federal spending in half, abolish income and corporation tax, wants a constitutional requirement to balance the budget, opposes government action to tackle global warming and opposes all forms of gun control. The libertarian platform blames the government for literally every problem and claims that they can all be solved by the free market. That’s not how you win Democrats over.
Even on social issues where Democrats could overlap with Libertarians, Johnson is lukewarm at best. Abortion is an issue that could unite Democrats and Libertarians in opposing government interference in people’s private lives, but while Johnson is pro-choice, the Libertarian Party is deeply divided on the issue so the platform is neutral and Johnson believes it should be up for the states to decide. Social issues like abortion have also gotten very little attention so far in the race, the focus has instead been on economic issues. While Johnson is generally pro-immigration, he still believes this is an area where the government should interfere with people’s freedom and doesn’t support open borders. A major hole in the Libertarian platform is in regards to gender and race issues, which Johnson basically doesn’t have a stance on. The Libertarian platform is essentially that free market will solve all racial and gender imbalances by itself and this is part of the reason why Libertarians have traditionally been dominated by white men. Johnson overall offers little to non-white voters which will seriously limit his appeal.
In fact on most issues, Johnson has a standard Republican stance (although pushed further than usual) so Johnson is really a liberal Republican rather than someone in the middle of the two groups. Supporting drug legalisation and opposing Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric make him a quirky Republican, but there’s not enough of a break to make him truly independent. There simply isn’t enough to appeal to Democrats let alone dissatisfied Sanders voters. After all, Jill Stein is running for the Green Party on a platform very similar to Sanders, so if liberals are unable to support Clinton, that’s where they’ll go. Libertarians hoping for disillusioned Sanders supporters to flock to them will be disappointed.
This means Johnson has a far stronger chance draw votes from Republicans than Democrats. While he won’t appeal to religious social conservatives, his constant criticism of government spending and taxes is something they can easily get behind. This will be much easier due to massive unpopularity of Donald Trump, even major Republicans are avoiding publically endorsing him. There is a large base on ideological conservatives who dislike Clinton, but can’t bring themselves to support Trump. They are still fiscally conservative but are put off by Trump’s crude racist remarks and foolish arrogance. So while Johnson won’t attract many Democrats, he could act as a serious spoiler to the Republicans. Clinton could even build up the campaign by mentioning Johnson in her speeches or even debating him, in order to help him pull votes away from Trump.
Clinton has consistently lead in the polls and once the Democrats unite around her, her lead will extend even further. When you add onto this the bombardment Democrats will throw against Trump (the Republicans could hardly criticise him for being anti-immigration in the primaries, the Democrats definitely will) and the inevitable gaffes he will make (remember how damaging Romney’s 47% comment was? Trump says stuff like that every week), Clinton will probably have an insurmountable lead. If this is the case (and I strongly suspect it will) then many voters will feel that Clinton will win regardless of who they vote for, which would reduce the fear that Johnson will split the vote. In a choice between two candidates who will lose, why not choose the more principled one?
So could Gary Johnson actually be relevant in the 2016 Presidential race? When even getting noticed is a victory for the Libertarian Party, there’s a good chance they’ll have a good year. But can they have a serious impact on the election? It’s one thing to get attention during the quiet summer months, but the real challenge is in September and October when attention is focused and the stakes are raised. While he will fall short of winning a state, winning something in the region of 5% of the votes is a possibility if he is lucky and things go his way. The greatest impact Johnson could have is as a Trump spoiler by taking votes from him and giving Clinton an electoral college landslide. For that reason alone, his campaign excites me.