Can Libertarian Gary Johnson Pick Up Where Ron Paul Left Off?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 4 2012 6:22 PM

The Libertarian (Ever) Hopeful

When Ron Paul fails, Gary Johnson will be waiting in the wings.

Gary Johnson, Libertarian candidate for President.
Gary Johnson.

Photo by Ron Hill Imagery/Gary Johnson.

Gary Johnson is late. He’s pretty happy about the reason: too many interviews on the schedule today. That was never a problem when he was running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Now that he’s the front-runner for the less-exclusive Libertarian Party nod, people want to talk to him.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“We started out at Grover Norquist’s meeting,” says Johnson, putting down his iPad to join me at a Dupont circle coffee shop. Norquist’s meeting of conservatives is off the record, but attendees can confirm that they crossed the threshold. “I thought it was a really good reception. Part of being out there, campaigning, talking to people, is being able to read body language. And it was all good. Nobody was dozing off. Nobody was shaking their heads. They were actually shaking their head this way.” He nods vigorously.

We’re talking on the day that Newt Gingrich announced the end of his profound presidential bid, when the Republican Party, supposedly, was learning to love Mitt Romney. It’s a few days before Johnson will claim the Libertarian Party’s nomination, potentially becoming a spoiler for Romney. The heads really nodded this way? No heads shaking that way?

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“No, none, zero,” says Johnson. “I really believe I’m gonna take it from Obama rather than Romney. I joke, you know—maybe all those pot-smoking, marriage equality, get out of Afghanistan voters for Romney are going to switch to me. Then, boy, he’ll be in trouble!”

In its 36 years of fielding presidential candidates, the Libertarian Party has settled on two types. The first: obscure activists who hew to the Ayn Rand Bible. The second: semi-famous politicians who might, finally, give the party an electoral media breakthrough. In 2004, the party went that first route and nominated Michael Badnarik, an affable computer programmer and freelance Constitution teacher. In 2008, the party convinced itself that former Rep. Bob Barr, a drug warrior turned leave-the-kids-alone activist, could ride the jetstreams of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.

Badnarik got 0.3 percent of the vote. Barr got 0.4 percent.

Johnson makes Libertarians a little more hopeful. Party leaders had courted Johnson ever since 2000, when he was still governor of New Mexico, and nationally famous for his support of drugs decriminalization. In 2011, when Johnson started missing the cut for Republican debates, the party begged him to come over. “From the beginning,” recalls Johnson, “they were saying ‘If this doesn’t work out, we have a place for you.’ ”

On Friday night in Las Vegas, Johnson will join lesser known activists like R. Lee Wrights (slogan: “Stop All War”) and Roger Gary (slogan: “Rock Solid”) for a presidential debate. On Saturday, he expects to win the nomination and pick former California Judge Jim Gray as his running mate. He will give a victory speech, then focus on the states he thinks he can win.

“I think at this point there are a few libertarian states,” says Johnson. “New Mexico might actually be in play. That’s a possibility. Wyoming. Montana. Nevada. Alaska. I’m thinking in terms of electoral votes. Those are states where we might actually win a three-way race.”

This is what every third party candidate says. Why would 2012 be different?

“Well, if you go back to 2008, Obama was the messiah to a lot of people,” says Johnson “Now you’ve got 80 percent of people saying they’d vote for a third party candidate. Do I make a difference? I don’t know, I don’t know. But being on the ballot in all 50 states, being in the game—wow! At some point, collectively, the country has to say, is there anyone else in this race? And I hope the answer they hear is, ‘yes, Libertarian Gary Johnson.’ ”

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