Libertarian looks for anti-Trump bump

Libertarian looks for anti-Trump bump
© Getty Images

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson has a message for Republicans seeking an alternative to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE.

“They should Google 'Gary Johnson',” Johnson told The Hill in a phone interview on Friday.

ADVERTISEMENT

The former Republican governor of New Mexico got about 1.3 million votes as the Libertarian standard-bearer in 2012. 

He’s seeking the party’s nomination again in 2016, and is hopeful that he’s about to get a moment in the spotlight as “Never Trump” Republicans furiously scramble for a viable alternative to challenge Trump and Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMissing piece to the Ukraine puzzle: State Department's overture to Rudy Giuliani On The Money: Trump downplays urgency of China trade talks | Chinese negotiators cut US trip short in new setback | Trump sanctions Iran's national bank | Survey finds Pennsylvania, Wisconsin lost the most factory jobs in past year Meghan McCain, Ana Navarro get heated over whistleblower debate MORE in the general election.

Johnson says the attention he’s getting from the media in recent weeks has increased exponentially. 

On Wednesday, the influential Red State blog vowed to support Johnson or whoever the Libertarian nominee is. On Thursday, the conservative magazine National Review wrote an op-ed with a message for Johnson: “This is your moment.”

There are no large donors stepping forward, Johnson said, but there’s been a pick-up in mailed checks and online donations. He had only raised about $250,000 at the end of March.

But the Libertarian Party as a whole appears to be gaining in currency as the GOP civil war over Trump threatens to splinter the party.

When The Hill interviewed “Never Trump” operatives about potential third-party nominees earlier this week, half the names mentioned were politicians with strong Libertarian streaks. Among them, – Johnson, Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashThe Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy Amash: 'Bolton never should have been hired' MORE (R-Mich.), and Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOn The Money: House votes to avert shutdown, fund government through November | Judge blocks California law requiring Trump tax returns | Senate panel approves three spending bills Paul objection snags confirmation of former McConnell staffer Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight MORE (R-Ky.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).

Also this week, veteran GOP strategist Mary Matalin, an adviser to both Bush administrations, switched her party affiliation from Republican to Libertarian.

Even the Google searches Johnson asked for have started to come through.

Data journalist Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com noted a massive spike in Internet searches for Johnson on Wednesday evening, shortly after John Kasich, Trump’s last remaining rival, dropped out of the Republican nominating contest.


“It’s an indictment of the Republican brand and how stale it’s become,” Johnson said.    

Still, it hasn’t been enough to earn him a look from the group of influential conservatives looking to recruit their own third-party or independent write-in candidate in the general election.

Johnson says he hasn’t been contacted by the leaders of the movement, Erickson or Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, even as they struggle to find a viable candidate. 

Some view him as a fringe figure and are turned off by his candor on marijuana use. In March, Johnson told The Daily Caller he had consumed a marijuana edible called “Cheeba Chews” within the last few weeks.

But Johnson thinks that contingent is ignoring the low-hanging fruit.

If Johnson wins the Libertarian nomination, as he’s expected to later this month, he’s likely to be the only third-party candidate who makes the ballot in all 50 states.

“They can start today with all the money in the world and they won’t get on enough ballots for it to make a mathematical difference,” he said. “It takes too much money and too much organization and there’s just not enough time.”

But Johnson says he’s not obsessing over becoming their “Never Trump” vessel.

Rather, his immediate focus is on getting pollsters to include his name in their surveys.

Johnson says his candidacy is hamstrung by a polling Catch-22.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which Johnson is suing, requires candidates poll at 15 percent in several national surveys leading up to the debate. 

That’s impossible for a third-party candidate when only Democratic and Republican candidates are tested in most surveys, Johnson said.

Libertarians point to a Monmouth University survey released late last month showing Johnson at 11 percent in a hypothetical match-up against Trump and Clinton.

Johnson believes that if other pollsters included him, it would produce a break-out moment for his candidacy. But it’s a safe he hasn’t been able to crack.

“The game is rigged,” Johnson said. “There’s no way a third-party candidate can make a difference without being on that debate stage, and that’s impossible if they don’t include you in the polls.”

Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray told The Hill they’d continue poll testing Johnson, or whoever wins the Libertarian nomination, “in some format” going forward.

But he said pollsters are often wary of including third-party candidates because their levels of support can easily be overstated.

“It gives voters unhappy with the major party choices an easy out when talking to pollsters, even though they may hold their nose in the voting booth and pick the D or R,” Murray said.

Still, Murray said that the unpredictable 2016 cycle dominated by insurgents and outsiders could be enough to justify including a third-party name for some pollsters.

“A better than average showing by a third-party candidate really cannot be ruled out this year,” he said.

Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of a liberal border state who despises big government and boasts of vetoing “more legislation than the other 49 governors combined,” would seem a natural fit for the anti-Trump Republicans.

But there are myriad reasons why establishment Republicans haven’t rushed to Johnson to save them from Trump.

Johnson, who quit his job as a marijuana marketing executive to run for president, holds strident Libertarian views that fall outside of mainstream conservatism. Some don’t take him seriously because of his embrace of marijuana and his free-spirited nature – he kissed fellow Libertarian candidate John McAfee at a debate in April.

“He might be an outlet for some protest votes, but if your concern with Donald Trump is that he’s not presidential enough, I’m not sure why Gary Johnson would be your guy,” said Ryan Williams, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.

One operative associated with the “Never Trump” movement said: “If he were a smart political operator he’d be refining his positions and moving to the center.”

Johnson says he won’t be moderating any of his positions, and argues that his socially liberal and fiscally conservative views put him inline with a majority of Americans.

Johnson says he can prove it if he can get the platform to make his case.

“The goal here is to get elected,” Johnson said. “It would be a nice story to have a breakthrough and get 5 percent of the vote, but that doesn’t change the national debate on these issues. I have to get on that debate stage to influence the topics being discussed and ultimately win the race.”