Libertarians Struggle to Get Pollsters to Notice Gary Johnson

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Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson at his party's national convention at the Rosen Center, Orlando, Florida, on May 29. Johnson told the press, “The headline I’d like to see is, ‘Why Not Include These Guys in the Polls?' We're a party of nuts, right? I'm kidding." Kevin Kolczynski/reuters

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

The Gary Johnson campaign is going to live or die for now on earned/free media, candidate and staff indicated in interviews at the Libertarian Party National Convention.

But first, said campaign manager Ron Nielson right after vice presidential candidate William Weld won his nomination on May 29, "we need to reorganize everything over the next few days. We were set up for this part [winning the Libertarian nomination], and now the organization needs to be something totally different."

Nielson says they'd gotten $80,000 pledged already just that day, "so, nice for us. We'll be concentrating on mass media, particularly social media, we have to keep up in those areas. We will hire more staff, but it's mainly going to be those areas."

He says that physical appearances, "unless it's a big place," aren't a top priority. Johnson had told me he knew nothing about plans for hiring any particular issue advisers. Johnson had suggested in interviews with me a couple of weeks ago that "$50 million" is what they might need to run a serious campaign that could win.

At that same time, he said at a press conference at the convention that he is leery of super PACs since they, by law, don't and can't coordinate messaging with the candidate or his campaign. He groused about an ad from 2012 that caused "my own brother to call and tell me, 'You flushed your brand.' Then he called back: 'Oh, was that a super PAC?'"

Whenever Johnson was asked about "reaching out" to any constituency outside the Libertarian Party, he stressed it's just not in his nature or personality to do much of that, that he doesn't like to "go on bended knee" and that he thinks particular interest groups who need what his campaign has to offer should come to him.

Johnson particularly doesn't like personal fundraising, and Weld is pretty explicitly tasked with that. Weld alluded a couple of times to his past as a finance chairman for Romney campaigns, and though I did not hear this myself someone at the convention tells me they heard Weld allude to a possible "future" relationship with Romney, meant to imply he might bring him in as an explicit supporter of the Johnson-Weld campaign.

Johnson credits Weld with having raised over a quarter billion dollars over his political career, compared to Johnson's mere $8 million. Weld said he had not yet begun reaching out to anyone for money until clinching the nomination.

Weld says he hopes he and Johnson can consistently "speak truth to power" in the context of the campaign. While I overheard him saying this in conversations with delegates, and not knowingly to reporters, he seems to carry a fair sense of resentment toward what the GOP has become, particularly the social conservative wing.

And it's not just about Donald Trump. He said in a press conference after his win that he has "never joined the Nevertrumps" and even said that he thought in some ways Trump "did a lot of good for the Republican Party," though no one was able to ask a follow-up to clarify what that might be.

Mending fences with some angry Libertarians is at least part of Weld's mission, though I doubt the central one. I did overhear him assure a delegate that he did not support assault weapon bans.

Their messaging, if what they said at the Libertarian Party convention is a meaningful preview, will stress Johnson's conventional formula of "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" and even taking that to stress that in a way, what they really represented was the best of both major parties, in a voter-pleasing combination neither Trump nor Clinton could deliver.

Johnson said in that press conference that he does not feel obligated to push instantly for the most radical ends of Libertarian platform ideas.

We will articulate the goal, if you will, and as pragmatists we will sign on to anything that makes things better, even if not every part of the platform. We will articulate the goal...but also recognize reality and the fact that reaching that goal may not be accomplishable, but here is what might be accomplishable tomorrow.

They can be "dogmatic on libertarian principle," Johnson says, but on "the degree to accomplish those" realize that "getting from A to D is better than just sticking at A." (Even if it isn't all the way to a libertarian "Z.")

Asked if they might strategize on trying to flip certain states for actual Electoral College votes in the press conference after Weld's win, Johnson said, "That really depends on resources. Modern-day campaigning can be all about social media, taking advantage of free media. I'll be flying to New York" to take advantage of earned media opportunities right after the convention. "The two of us might be in front of 50 million people [on TV] as opposed to being on the ground in front of several thousand."

Then Johnson turned things around on the assembled reporters: "The headline I'd like to see: 'Why Not Include These Guys in the Polls?' What is there to fear? We might get enough attention to actually be a part of the debate? Who should fear that? We're a party of nuts, right? I'm kidding."

The self-deprecation on the Libertarian Party was kidding, but Johnson was serious throughout every conversation I had with him or overheard: Polls are key to getting in debates, debates are key to getting attention and votes and vital to any plan for victory.

So plan one has to be raising enough of a public profile that not polling about Johnson and Weld will seem absurd.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired.