Dark Horses and Libertarians: The Plays of Gary Johnson

September 7, 2016

In 1980, the career Republican Illinois congressman John B. Anderson made an independent party bid for the American presidency, mounting a rising-and-fall challenge to the incumbent Democratic sitting president, Jimmy Carter, and the surging Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. To say that Anderson was a dark horse was accurate, given his success in Republican primaries. But down the stretch his candidacy faltered, earning no electoral votes, no states, and a mere seven percent of the popular vote.dark-horse-johnson-weld

In 2016, another horse is emerging in the form of a Libertarian ticket with former governors Gary Johnson (NM) and William Weld (MA) as its standard bearers. No one should be too surprised. Consider, for example, that the distaste for Clinton and Trump is as marked today as it was for Carter and Reagan nine cycles ago.

So outside Johnson’s recent “What is Allepo” gaffe, what plays are Johnson and Weld running to make their third-party ticket stick? Here’s a list to consider:

DEFLECTS  To questions that he’ll only play the spoiler, Johnson deflects, saying, in essence, A vote of conscience is never a wasted vote.

RECASTS  Johnson’s spin is simple: We’re outsiders who know the inside game. We’re two of America’s most successful governors. We know the ropes. We know the traps. We know how to govern. He’s also working hard to position his candidacy as drawing equally from Clinton and Trump.

LANTERNS  Johnson admits that it’s “game over” if he doesn’t make the debates. This might seem like a dangerous disclosure, but perhaps it’s a high-risk ploy to motivate mulling supporters. (A veiled bait, for smartypants Playmakers.)

CHALLENGES  Related to his recasts, Johnson is all but daring the electorate to give him a look. Why not me? The unimaginable has already happened with Trump’s GOP hijacking. Why would a Johnson-Weld White House be so out of the ordinary? Demand a third voice!

FIATS Some of Johnson’s messages don’t need spin; they just need to be said. What you’ll hear, over and over, are these simple statements: We’re on every ballot in every state. Women have a right to choose. We’re non-inventional, fiscally responsible, socially inclusive, tolerant and we favor smaller government and individual liberty. We’ll tell the truth. We’ll admit our mistakes.

PEACOCKS  Here’s where Johnson and Weld are lacking — showmanship. Exceptions are the so-called Money Bomb and #LetGaryDebate campaigns. He’d earlier earned some headlines by calling Trump a pussy, but he’s since downplayed the media-grabbing insult. Of course there are exceptions. Take for example this rogue video by an Abe Lincoln-challenged actor: “It’s time to vote for freaking batman!”

CALL OUTS  “They’re terrible candidates,” is a common cat call at Clinton and Trump by the quirky candidate. Johnson is running videos and limited paid ads that parody the chaos and criminality of their tragic, respective natures.

SURROGATES  This is another area where the Libertarian ticket is falling woefully short. Single numbers of opinion leaders and newspaper endorsements aren’t creating the effect of a broad and growing constituency.

So what’s the prescription for the sub-10 candidate who needs plus-15 numbers to make the debate stage? Here are three:

  1. Again, surrogates. Many and more. And the higher their level or brighter their brands the better. What Johnson and Weld need is a Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to flip their way. A Mitt Romney. Or even an Oprah-like celebrity.
  2. Peacocks that draw free media. His campaign is dead without it. Instead of calling Trump names, Johnson is the guy to literally clock The Donald. That’d do it. The idea, too, that Johnson and Weld are proposing a hybrid kind of co-presidency is worth promoting.
  3. Screens that (1) recall stories and enrich the narratives of the two decisive governors in two turn-around states and (2) draw the arc of where Clinton or Trump presidencies would lead us: Irrational with Trump. Gridlocked with Hillary.
  4. Get serious. This is not so much a play as it is a knob to turn on the Playmaker’s master control panel. Johnson has his goofy moments, which exposes him to another killer Trump label. And without a minor personality transplant, one might otherwise think it’s the pinstriped Weld who tops the ticket.


Post by Alan Kelly