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 Slate political reporter. 

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 Slate political reporter. 


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