Libertarian Gary Johnson could swing votes from Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton

Gary Johnson may have little name recognition, but the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee has a big-time spoiler opportunity in the upcoming U.S. election.

Unpopularity of Trump, Clinton leaves opening for Libertarians despite party's 'weird' reputation

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, left, could assume the role of an election spoiler by diverting votes from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Voters have expressed openness to a third party as Clinton and Trump are mired in historically low favourability ratings. (Kevin Kolczynski, Carlos Barria, Dominick Reuter/Reuters)

A chorus of boos erupted in a political conference last Sunday as James Weeks, heavyset and gyrating, stripped down to a black thong.

C-SPAN cameras at the Libertarian Party National Convention in Orlando caught attendees burying their faces in their palms. At least one person ran onstage to tuck a dollar bill into Weeks's underpants. Weeks, a 28-year-old candidate for national party chair, later called it "performance art."

"I'm not embarrassed by what I did," the Libertarian activist from Michigan said, laughing on the phone.

Maybe not embarrassing for him. But it was probably a little confusing for Americans now taking a hard look at libertarianism as an alternative to voting for expected Republican nominee Donald Trump or Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Watch Libertarian national chair candidate James Weeks strip at party convention:

Long an election afterthought, the political movement dedicated to small government, fiscal conservatism and social liberalism is now buoyed by historically low approval ratings for Trump and Clinton.

Ralph Nader repeat

Striptease antics aside, it's a serious opportunity for the Libertarians to play spoiler. The party is running perhaps its most politically practical ticket ever.

Newly anointed Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson served two terms as governor of New Mexico. His running mate, Bill Weld, served as governor of Massachusetts for six years until 1997.

If the Libertarians can appeal to an electorate dissatisfied with the two major-party candidates, it could set up a replay of the 2000 election's spoiler scenario.

Democrats that year blamed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for diverting support in hotly contested Florida from Al Gore, who lost the White House to Republican nominee George W. Bush.

The Green Party took 2.7 per cent of the popular vote, which Democrats claim would have otherwise gone to Gore.

Five months before this general election, it's hard to imagine someone other than Clinton or Trump crossing the finishing line. But Philip Wallach, a Brookings Institution fellow who has written about third-party campaigns, isn't counting out a Nader-like repeat.

"I do think it is a matter of spoiler," he said.

The Libertarian Party again nominated former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as its presidential candidate, believing he can challenge presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton because of their poor showing in popularity polls. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

With Nader fresh in Americans' minds, he said, left-leaning voters "might be very nervous about the Libertarians playing the Ralph Nader role, and helping to swing the election to Trump."

Wallach foresees some disaffected supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders finding alignment with Libertarian principles on issues like drug legalization.

For his part, Trump this week dismissed the Johnson-Weld ticket as "a total fringe deal."

To voters on the right, Wallach suggests the Libertarian ticket could appear more politically conventional. Particularly to displaced Republicans turned off by Trump and "worried about Trump as somebody who could abuse power."

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton have scored very unfavourable ratings as the leading candidates of their parties. (Tom Pennington, Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

It could ostensibly be the moderate option for displaced Republicans turned off by Trump.

"An unusual place for a Libertarian to end up," Wallach said.

What remains to be seen is whether Libertarians pull disproportionately from one party.

A CBS/New York Times poll from March showed scores for Clinton and Trump that were so low the candidates could be the most unpopular party nominees since 1984.

That has animated Libertarians.

"I've had a lot of friends emailing me, saying, 'Do you know anyone on the Johnson campaign? Is there any way I could get involved?'" said David Boaz, executive vice-president of the Washington-based libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute. "I can't remember that happening before."

Boaz believes this is the best opportunity the Libertarian Party has ever had, both in terms of the quality of its ticket and "the low quality" of the major-party nominees.

"This is our chance. This is the one," he said.

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader was blamed by Democrats as an election spoiler in 2000. They claim votes in razor-thin Florida went to him instead of Democratic candidate Al Gore. (Jay Drowns/Associated Press)

Johnson's name will likely appear on ballots in all 50 states.

In the 2012 election, he captured just one per cent of the national vote, or about 1.27 million votes. His polling numbers this year are more inspiring.

A Morning Consult poll released late last month found Clinton getting 38 per cent of the vote, followed by 35 per cent for Trump.

Johnson took a respectable 10 per cent. A Fox News survey conducted in mid-May also gave Johnson 10 per cent favourability compared with his Democratic and Republican counterparts.

A 15 per cent favourability in the polls would elevate Johnson to the main debate stage alongside Clinton and Trump.

Resistance from hardline Libertarians

Getting there will require overcoming a perception that the party is a home for eccentrics with latent anarchist inclinations.

The Johnson-Weld ticket is a start, Boaz said.

Libertarian Party candidate Vermin Supreme, left, wears his signature boot on his head, with supporters at the party's national convention held at the Rosen Center in Orlando, Fla. (Kevin Kolczynski/Reuters)

"There are probably some Libertarian candidates who are wackos, but these guys have been elected and re-elected as governors," he said, noting the candidates comprise a Libertarian ticket with 14 years of public-sector governing experience.

There may be resistance within the party, however.

At the party convention last weekend, candidates debated the merits of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin. Only Johnson said he would have signed the act. 

Former Libertarian presidential candidate Darryl W. Perry, who suspended his campaign last weekend, says he's dismayed by the Johnson-Weld ticket and considers neither Johnson nor Weld to be true Libertarians. (Conan Salada)

When Johnson was the lone candidate to defend the need for driver's licences to regulate and protect people from dangerous motorists, orthodox party members booed.

It took two ballots for him to win the nomination.

Libertarian candidate Darryl W. Perry, who debated Johnson on the stage and argued that all drugs "should be as legal as tomatoes," said he's still "emotionally devastated" by the nomination outcome.

Come November, Perry will either abstain from voting for president or write in "None of the Above."

'Keeping the party weird'

Neither Johnson nor Weld, both former Republicans, represent philosophically pure Libertarian values, Perry said.

"There were a lot of Republicans … that joined the party on Wednesday and showed up on Sunday. These are people that don't care about the party."

Former Massachusetts Republican governor William Weld, shown in a 2006 file photo, is on the Libertarian Party's ticket as vice-presidential nominee. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

Weeks, the striptease performer from the convention, backed Perry at the Orlando meeting. He was disappointed by Johnson's nomination and now worries about the Libertarian Party's embrace of prime time.

"I don't want to get caught in this idea that this is our year. The real challenge is the cognitive state and focusing on spreading the Libertarian message," he said.

"But getting included in the debates might be a good thing."

Still, Weeks, a proponent of "keeping the party weird," balked at an online campaign to have his party membership revoked after his nearly naked performance upset some delegates.

Libertarianism has, after all, always been about defending individual freedoms, he reasoned.

"There's nothing wrong with putting on a suit, but that's not what libertarianism is about," he said. "Taking one off is, though."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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