The Gary Johnson We'd Deserved

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 21 2011 4:12 PM

The Gary Johnson We'd Deserved

Jim Geraghty kicks Gary Johnson when he's down, basically arguing that the soon-to-be Libertarian presidential hopeful (he needs to win at a June convention in Las Vegas, but if Bob Barr can, so can he) will never catch fire because he didn't catch fire.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

I expect we’ll hear a lot of complaining about how the media never gave him a chance, and a lot of talk about how the “establishment” suppressed his campaign, and a lot of blame placed everywhere except on the candidate and his staff.
It’s a bunch of baloney (other words would apply, too). Ron Paul is running on a similar platform and is close to winning Iowa today. Herman Cain represented a less likely résumé and he was frontrunner for a while. Michele Bachmann has never won statewide office the way Johnson had, and she enjoyed frontrunner status and won the Ames straw poll.

We're getting way ahead of ourselves. Johnson's 2012 GOP campaign was star-crossed from the word "go" because he made an incorrect assumption: He thought the field would lack Ron Paul, and Paul's army would be ready for a successor. But Paul got into the race, and his voters were, from the start, quite resilient. They got more resilient, less interested in an alternative, because Paul did well. There was a secondary reason: Johnson wasn't included in any debates after the first, somewhat misbegotten one in May and the fluke Florida debate where Rick Perry first started to melt down. Media organizations tightened up their polling requirements after 2008. One debate, hosted by Bloomberg, wouldn't include any candidate who hadn't already appeared in three debates -- a true Catch-22.

When I say media organizations changed the requirements, I'm referring to something minor that would have had a major impact had it been done in 2008. That year, Ron Paul started as a fringe candidate, and stayed that way for a while. Paul was at 1-3 percent, in the margin of error, in national polls, until a Gallup poll in September 2007 put him at 4 percent. In plenty of polls, Paul didn't register at all. So had the "average of 2 percent" requirement been in place that year, Paul would not have made it into the debates that built his following.

Does making it into a debate guarantee that you can build a movement? Dumb question. Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, and Sam Brownback made it into all of the debates in 2007, and none did anything with them, although Tancredo drove the debate right as long as immigration was in the news. Geraghty argues that Johnson was a bad candidate because, among other things, he nearly whiffed on registering for the New Hampshire primary. Well -- Newt Gingrich whiffed on entering Missouri, and he's scrambling to make it on the ballot in Virginia, where he lives. Like Johnson, Gingrich let an organization go fallow when his campaign was running on fumes. Was Johnson a weak debater? In his first outing, sure; in his second and final outing, he did quite well. We have no idea how he could have done if he'd made the stage in debate after debate. With Barack Obama's approval falling, was there some pool of voters who might have discovered the pro-gay, pro-choice, anti-war, pro-WikiLeaks libertarian and fallen for him? Why not? When Occupy Wall Street took off, could Buddy Roemer have won over a bloc he never knew existed? Who knows?

The story of the Johnson and Roemer campaigns isn't that two fringe candidates never caught on. It's that they were kept out of debates, to their surprise, and never got chances to catch on. Meanwhile, Herman Cain, who had never won any office and had never been honest about his past, polled fairly well, so he made it into every single televised contest. Voters discovered him. They never discovered the former governors of New Mexico and Louisiana. I'm not saying this was a national tragedy, just this it would have been interesting to watch the "fringe" guys compete.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.