The Libertarian Party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees will get their best shot to convince voters they should be considered seriously for the White House at an hourlong prime-time town hall Wednesday on CNN.
But political observers say that to move the needle much, Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonBiden broadened Democratic base, cut into Trump coalition: study New Mexico lawmakers send recreational marijuana bills to governor Judge throws out murder convictions, releases men jailed for 24 years MORE and his running mate, William Weld, are going to have to show a more conventional side that the public doesn’t always associate with libertarians.
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Johnson and Weld have been on a handful of cable and Sunday talk shows, but the prime-time town hall, in which host Chris Cuomo and voters will ask them questions, will offer the pair significantly greater exposure.
The Libertarian Party remains a relatively unknown quantity in the mainstream political arena, and observers say they’ll have to demonstrate that they are credible candidates and that their party’s policies are more than just “gimmicks.”
“I think they’re going to have to distance themselves from more extreme Libertarian policies that borderline on anarchy. It’s not going to appeal to a wide range of voters,” said Kyle Kopko, political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. “I think they have to be able to really show that they’re reasonable candidates.”
Christopher Devine, political science assistant professor at the University of Dayton, said Johnson and Weld must show they are serious about marijuana legalization and noninterventionist foreign policy, two issues integral to their campaign.
“People don’t know a lot about the Libertarian Party, so they assume their positions are convenient or a gimmick,” Devine said.
“If they can break the stereotype that what they’re trying to do is just license behavior for the fun of it and is a serious, philosophical view, they really do themselves some favors,” Devine said about voter perceptions of marijuana legalization. “They could really do a lot to break that stereotype with this high-profile opportunity.”
Johnson, who was the party’s 2012 nominee and received less than 1 percent of the vote, and Weld go into this unpredictable election cycle with a degree of name recognition and long resumes — both are former Republican governors. Their combined executive experience of 14 years has piqued the interest of those outside the party and helped them earn a second look by the media.
In recent weeks, Johnson has participated in more interviews, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He was also invited to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials at its annual conference in Washington on Thursday.
“Even compared to Johnson four years ago, we’re seeing more major media coverage than we have in the past, and I think that’s a product of great dissatisfaction with the two major-party candidates,” said David Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute and author of “The Libertarian Mind.”
Libertarians hope that their moment in the spotlight will translate into more media exposure and a fundraising boost that could in turn elevate them in the polls and get them to the ultimate prime-time political event: a general election debate.
To qualify, presidential candidates need to reach 15 percent in an average of five general election polls considered by the Commission on Presidential Debates. That gives them a green light for the first presidential debate in September and punches their running mate’s ticket to the vice presidential debate in early October.
But a big problem for third-party candidates is often getting their names included in polls in the first place.
As his campaign has received more media attention, Johnson has appeared in more polls. Except for a June Fox News poll in which he had 12 percent support, however, he has averaged 9 percent in major surveys pitting him against Clinton and Trump.
That number drops when Green Party candidate Jill Stein is included. Then, he’s averaging just 6 percent in a four-person race, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
But Libertarian Party Chairman Nicholas Sarwark is optimistic that Wednesday’s town hall will help the ticket in the polls.
“As long as Johnson and Weld keep going to tout they’re the sensible, sane candidates, I think the poll numbers will follow,” he said, adding that the exposure could help voters leap “the psychological hurdle” of “voting for a party they haven’t voted for in the past.”
Other networks appear to be waiting to decide if they will jump on the third-party bandwagon.
Along with the primary debates, town halls have been a ratings boon for cable news. In March, CNN reached a record number of viewers during its Republican town hall, with an average of about 3.26 million people tuning in.
But without the star power of Trump, networks are unlikely to achieve similar ratings.
Robert Thompson, a communications professor at Syracuse University, said measuring the success of Wednesday’s libertarian town hall will be difficult but that 1 million viewers would be a victory for CNN.
He noted that if CNN can generate enthusiasm by tapping into a new narrative of the election cycle, that could inspire other major networks to host their own prime-time events.
“Clearly, there’s a lot more people paying attention or starting to pay attention to this than have in the past,” Thompson said. “I think if CNN got a million on this, it would be something of a triumph.
“I don’t think CNN is going to break any records with this town hall, but if they stake out some territory and get some people interested, it’s one of the new storylines of this endlessly fascinating election cycle and I think it makes sense to follow,” he added.
Ben Kamisar contributed.