As the campaign began, the Libertarian Party, spearheaded by former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, appeared to be having a moment. The major party nominees, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, aroused deep feelings of resentment within the electorate. As the general election began, it appeared that Johnson was but a stone’s throw away from the debate stage and national recognition. He regularly polled above five percent, with some polls showing that one in 10 Americans planned to vote for him.
Now, many polls show Johnson failing to achieve even the five percent necessary for federal funding. The promise of legitimacy and electoral success that had motivated the party to nominate him above Libertarian purists never came to fruition. Governor Johnson has become a punchline, barely more credible than Jill Stein or Darrell Castle. This delegitimization is not without good reason.
It would be too easy to conclude that Johnson’s failure is a result of a lack of media attention, bias, or a rigged system. While it is true that the two-party system significantly disadvantages third-party candidates, to chalk it up to this is to only touch the tip of the Johnson anomaly. No, if we are to truly grasp the Johnson campaign’s fall from grace, we must work our way to the base of the problem, the realization that Johnson’s failure is direct result of him gaining credibility.
When Gary Johnson sought the Libertarian Party nomination, many believed him to be the key to national credibility for the party, and in truth they had good reason to be optimistic. Not only was the American public deeply cynical about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but Johnson appeared to be the perfect candidate. He was a popular governor of a swing state, had earned over a million votes leading the party in 2012, had significantly more experience than his opponents for the nomination and by every measure seemed to be the moderate, mainstream, reasonable Libertarian the party needed to introduce the public to their ideas.
He even had the perfect way to introduce those ideas. Governor Johnson pitches Libertarianism as the perfect blend of ideologies, borrowing the social liberalism of the Democratic Party and the fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party. While many Libertarians take issue with this explanation, and it may not be strictly accurate, most Americans view Libertarianism through this lens.
Governor Johnson’s fall, in fact, has very little to do with the ideology itself, he barely subscribes to it anyway. Instead, it has to do with how the media treats him and his lack of preparation for the spotlight.
The first sign of trouble for Libertarians began far before 2016, during Gary Johnson’s tenure as Governor of New Mexico. According to the Washington Post, Johnson “paid little attention to details” and “preferred to discuss his fitness routine rather than focus on the minutiae of policymaking.” Many activists reported that he rarely took their ideas seriously. State
Senator Mimi Stewart (D) related, “It is easy to make simple decisions when you don’t spend time learning about the nuances of policy.” Johnson’s meetings would last only five minutes, at the longest, which he believed gave him plenty of time to grasp the issues (The Washington Post, “Years before ‘Aleppo moment,’ Gary Johnson Showed Little Interest in details of governing,” 10.03.2016).
The most concerning aspect of this is the idea that not only did Gary Johnson not understand the details, but he appeared to be under the false impression that he didn’t need to. Not only is that a disastrous position to take as a presidential candidate, but it would be a concerning quality in any public official, especially one serving in a position that demands an extraordinary understanding of nuance like the Presidency.
This attitude can be excused for minor candidates who know they don’t have a chance at winning. When a candidate is focusing on getting to five percent rather than becoming president, the public is generally willing to accept a lack of attention to details. Take Jill Stein, for example. Her goal is to motivate the base to vote for her instead of Hillary Clinton, not to win the election, and thus she can make promises that major candidates wouldn’t be able to, safe in the knowledge that she’ll never be in a position to fulfill them, like her promise to appoint Edward Snowden to her cabinet.
As Gary Johnson started to rise in the polls, however, the media began to treat him as a viable candidate, if perhaps not with the same fervor in which they covered Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. They started asking him important policy questions, and this is when we see a decline. His repeated failure to understand even the most basic elements of foreign policy, as demonstrated in his infamous “Aleppo” moment and failure to name even one world leader, significantly damaged his credibility.
Johnson has even demonstrated a relative misunderstanding of domestic and fiscal policy during a recent incident in which he blew up at a reporter and refused to answer questions about his tax policies.
If we are going to view Johnson as a conservative alternative to the Republican nominee, he must similarly be held to the same standard. Trump has repeatedly given contradictory answers about his policies and personal political beliefs. Several conservative commentators have slammed Trump for his erratic behavior and lack of savvy in terms of policy-making. How is Gary Johnson any different in this regard?
While some of his diehard supporters may claim his exclusion from the debates hurt his chances, it is very unlikely that he would have been able to effectively deliver his message to the electorate regardless. Were he asked a question about foreign policy on the debate stage, or was asked to elaborate on specifics, he would have found himself both unknowledgeable on the issue and without the deflecting abilities of the other major candidates. He very easily could have had an “Aleppo” moment.
This of course is combined with the relative strength of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. While she has recently had some difficulty, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has not collapsed in the way that the Libertarians probably hoped it would, and Republicans abandoning Trump have shown a reluctance to vote for Gary Johnson that he likely didn’t anticipate.
But if he really wants to seek the cause of his inability to further spread libertarianism, Gary Johnson should look no further than himself. His inability to listen, his complete lack of interest in policy and his stunning ignorance of major issues affecting the country have harmed his credibility and prevented him from succeeding. He failed to assert himself as a credible alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Gary Johnson will not be elected President. He most likely understood this when he started his campaign and he definitely understands it now. But that is not why his campaign ought to be considered a failure. Gary Johnson’s campaign is a failure because he failed to truly bring his party to prominence, he made Libertarianism appear less credible and he very likely won’t receive the five-percent share of the vote that he needs in order for his party to receive federal funding.
This is no one’s fault but his own. Gary Johnson did not run a good campaign and has failed to assert himself as a credible candidate.