Government & Politics

Looking Libertarian?

Gary Johnson secures the LP nomination. Who is he?

Lewis Morris · Jun. 1, 2016
Johnson and Weld

The Libertarian Party decided on its 2016 presidential campaign ticket over Memorial Day weekend, choosing former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson with former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as his running mate. In any other election year, this might be considered small news, but in 2016, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton earning historically high disapproval ratings, the Libertarian ticket is a possible alternative for disgusted voters.

Johnson got less than 1% of the vote in his 2012 presidential campaign as a Libertarian, but he is already enjoying much better name recognition this time around. In May, he drew 10% in a Fox News poll that asked voters to name their presidential preference. This was against Trump’s 42% and Clinton’s 39%.

So who is Gary Johnson?

He has considered himself a Libertarian for most of his political life, outside of a brief stint as anti-war Democrat in 1972. He turned a small handyman business into a multi-million-dollar enterprise, and as he rose up the political ranks in New Mexico, he considered running for the governorship as a Libertarian, but switched to Republican in 1994.

“It took about 45 seconds for me to come to grips that I would never get elected as a Libertarian,” Johnson said of his visit to a Libertarian Party meeting in 1994. “It wasn’t an organization and it wasn’t my crowd.”

Johnson’s governing style and stance on the issues can best be described as fiscally conservative and socially tolerant. He seeks to balance the federal budget with spending discipline and pro-growth policies. He proposes saving Social Security by raising the retirement age, introducing means testing, and allowing personal investments. National Review’s John J. Miller explains, “Johnson supports gay marriage and calls himself pro-choice on abortion, but he also believes Roe [v. Wade] was wrongly decided and says that abortion should be legal only ‘up to the point of the viability of the fetus, when it can be sustained outside the womb even if by artificial means.’” Johnson embraces an immigration policy that would rely on work visas and not big walls.

Johnson is also pro-marijuana legalization, and during his second term became the highest-ranking public official in the country to back legalization. Not only that, but he is an admitted pot smoker and was CEO of Cannabis Sativa, a Nevada company that markets legal marijuana products. But he promises not to inhale if elected president.

Johnson believes that he and Weld are offering a viable alternative to voters turned off by what the Republicans and Democrats are offering in 2016. Yet they’re well aware of the steep uphill climb they have to reach those voters. No Libertarian candidate has been on the ballot in all 50 states since 1980, and no third-party challenger has reached the required 15% national polling threshold to join the debates since 1992.

“There’s no way a third party wins the presidency without being in the debates,” Johnson says. “You’ve got to have a microphone in your mouth, broadcasting to tens of millions of people instead of nobody.”

So the big focus for Johnson-Weld now is to raise their notoriety with the electorate.

There are some net positives for the pair. They are both multi-term governors, which means they have more governing experience between them than Clinton and Trump combined. (Then again, some folks consider that a negative.) They also embrace a largely center-right stance on the issues that matches the general mood of the electorate.

However, the Libertarian Party has never been taken seriously on the national stage. It may be in part due to shenanigans like seeing a candidate for party chairman strip on the national convention stage. Libertarians have enough trouble being taken seriously without such headline-grabbing incidents. But, in a year when pretty much anything goes in the presidential race, the Libertarians might just fit right in.

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