How Gary Johnson could shake up the presidential race
The 2016 election is all about frustration — with politics, with people running for office, with Democrats and Republicans alike. Irritation with politics as usual fueled the rise of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and sustained Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' so-called political revolution deep into the Democratic Party's primary.
Voters seem primed for someone who is outside of the traditional system. Of the most recent presidential elections, this year could provide the best opening for a viable third-party candidate.
A popular two-term governor out of New Mexico, Johnson first entered politics in 1994 as part of the Republican Party. But his views have always hinged on libertarian principles of limited government and tax cuts. "My overriding philosophy is the common-sense business approach to state government, period. Best product, best service, lowest price," Johnson told the libertarian magazine Reason during a 2001 interview.
Johnson's 2016 campaign builds on his success in New Mexico, where a local reporter described him as "arguably the most popular governor of the decade." Interest in and media visibility around his campaign has increased in recent months, as conservatives have expressed dislike of Trump, and Sanders' chances at the nomination have diminished.
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Although Johnson's 9 percent polling average puts him almost 26 points behind Trump, that 9 percent is significant for a couple of reasons. First of all, the rulemaking organization for the presidential debates stipulates that candidates need to have at least a 15 percent average in national polls in order to participate in the debates.
That 15 percent rule has kept many third-party candidates off the main debate stage, significantly decreasing their visibility with a larger audience. When Ross Perot ran as an Independent in 1992, for example, his polling numbers were high enough that he participated in the general election debates. He ended up winning close to 19 percent of the popular vote that year, the best showing for a third-party candidate since the early 1900s.
For his part, Johnson needs to peel away just 6 more points in the coming months to make him eligible for a showing at the debates.
The polling data also shows Johnson already is on a number of voters' radar. The average puts him at 9 percent, but he notched 11 percent in a Monmouth University poll in March and 12 percent in a Fox News poll in early June.
Without a doubt, Johnson has an uphill battle when it comes to educating Americans about his presidential campaign. That's especially true this cycle, with Trump and Hillary Clinton — who have loads of name recognition after years in the public eye — grabbing headlines and capturing the public's attention. Johnson's 9 percent (or even 11 or 12 percent) has to be a jumping-off point for an earnest ground game and well-defined campaign strategy.
But there is a possibility that Johnson could get an assist from how much people know about Trump and Clinton. Both candidates suffer from historically high unfavorable marks. The visualization below shows net favorability, which is each candidate's favorable rating minus the unfavorable rating.
As of June 19, both Clinton and Trump are in double-digit negatives. While that could indicate the 2016 presidential contest will be an in-the-gutter race to the bottom, alternatively, it could provide a window of opportunity for a third-party candidate.
Indeed, polling data indicates a chunk of Americans still haven't decided which candidate to support come November, with 17 percent undecided.
Another opportunity for Johnson's campaign? Independent voters especially haven't decided who to vote for in the general, with 26 percent saying they are undecided. That's a lot of people, when considering how many Americans identify as "political independents." According to a Gallup survey from January 2016, 42 percent of American adults consider themselves independents and don't affiliate with either the Republican Party or Democratic Party.
Trump continues to do well with this voting bloc, amassing 37 percent among independents. In order to make a play for the White House, Johnson would need to stanch the flow of that support toward Trump while collecting some of those undecideds.
But if the independent voters supporting Trump are looking for a candidate new to politics, that could thwart Johnson's general election campaign before it gets too far off the ground. While Johnson identifies with the Libertarian Party, he has been in politics since the mid-1990s.
Johnson also scores quite moderate on political issues — another selling point for the 42 percent of voters who don't identify with a specific party. He is straight-down-the-middle on individual rights and defense issues, and a bit more conservative on domestic and economic issues. The visualization below reflects data from OnTheIssues, where scores of -10 to -1 are considered liberal and scores of 1 to 10 are considered conservative.
Johnson supports abortion rights and marriage equality, but not government-imposed regulations on the environment. He has said the so-called war on drugs was "a miserable failure." He is a staunch supporter of gun rights, and strongly favors immigration reform. He opposes stimulus policies and tax hikes, does not want to grow the military and supports free trade. He does not think the U.S. should get overly involved in international affairs.
In many ways, Johnson reflects the socially liberal, fiscally conservative perspectives that many Americans — especially younger voters — say they hold.
This also isn't Johnson's first foray on the national stage, which could help his prospects. In 2008, Johnson actively supported a fellow libertarian-leaning Republican for president, Texas Rep. Ron Paul. But in 2012, Johnson mounted a presidential campaign of his own, first as a Republican and then as the Libertarian Party's candidate. He finished that race with just shy of 1 percent, but got 1,275,923 votes — the highest number of votes ever cast for a Libertarian candidate.
The big question is whether he can build on that success this election. For a point of reference, a Gallup poll from June 2012 had Johnson at 3 percent. As of June 2016, he's already at 9 percent.
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