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Analysis
Poor show against Clinton and Trump

Poor show against Clinton and Trump

US Libertarians squander third-party opportunity

by Sam Fossum in London

Mon 11 Jul 2016

For the first time since 1992, when businessman Ross Perot’s independent presidential bid gathered 19% of the popular vote, a third-party candidacy has a chance to break into America’s democratic duopoly. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reports that 71% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, yet the nation’s mainstream political parties have answered by selecting two of the most disliked candidates in US history.

In an election billed as casting aside convention, fringe US political parties have an opportunity to grab US voters’ attention. Unfortunately, they seem unlikely to get it.

Wielding his party’s slogan of ‘maximum freedom, minimum government’, the Libertarian party’s presidential candidate Gary Johnson, and his running-mate William Weld, hope to take advantage of the millions of voters dissatisfied with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. An Economist/YouGov poll showed 65% of respondents disliked Trump, while Clinton was not much better at 55%. The Libertarians have an opportunity to siphon votes from both parties and capitalise on the 40% of Americans who called themselves ‘independent’ in a 2015 Pew Research study.

Established in 1971, the Libertarian party promotes a classically liberal platform focused on personal freedom and free market economics. They are held back, however, by  a reputation for making headlines for an eclectic membership and atypical conventions, rather than serious presidential contenders.

US electoral history is littered with independent and third-party candidates who did little other than take votes away from one party and swing the election. Unlike Perot and other third-party candidates before him, Johnson will have ballot access in all 50 states – an administrative nightmare since each state has different requirements.

Johnson’s next big hurdle is to poll at 15% or higher so he can qualify for the presidential debates, an absolute must if he wants to convince voters and donors he is a winner.

A month after Johnson’s nomination at a raucous Libertarian convention in May, his initial polling buoyancy has stagnated. Even after a series of high profile media opportunities last month, a Fox News poll in late June showed Gary Johnson polling at 10%, while a USA Today/Suffolk poll conducted a few days later reported support from just 8% of respondents.

Johnson’s uptick in media coverage has yet to translate into higher poll numbers. This is no surprise. During Johnson’s CNN town hall performance on 22 June, he seemed emotionally distant, giving vague and tangential answers to important policy questions. He refused to answer an audience member who asked him to elaborate on his tax plan, saying, ‘Let’s not get into the weeds here’.

Johnson is a multi-millionaire businessman and two-term former governor of New Mexico who helped balance the state’s budget, improve its infrastructure and lower taxes. He knows how to explain a tax plan. Whether it was bad advice from his campaign, or a personal fear of alienating voters by being too technical, the result remains the same. He is killing his chance to capitalise on growing exposure.

Johnson will not gain ground as a serious competitor to Trump and Clinton if he tries to play the political game the same way they do. He lacks the exposure, money or the backing of a political juggernaut. If he wants to be noticed, he needs to start explaining to voters the merits behind Libertarian political beliefs and values – and not just hide behind empty platitudes.

In an election that seems more like a reality TV show than a public forum, Johnson must demonstrate he has the depth and substance to get the job done. So far, he is making a poor show of it.

Sam Fossum is a member of the OMFIF Publishing Department. This forms part of OMFIF's series of commentaries on the US presidential election on 8 November.

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