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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

This year could be different for Libertarian Gary Johnson

Former two-term governor of New Mexico and Libertarian

Former two-term governor of New Mexico and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks at Duke University, in Durham N.C. (Sept. 20, 2012) Credit: AP

There’s been a lot of talk about rigged election processes this year.

Some of it’s been legitimate; much of it’s been bunk.

But almost none of it’s been about the most egregious breach in democratic principles occurring right before our eyes in the willful omission of former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson from the national presidential polls.

Johnson, whom I had a chance to sit down with on Friday at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, is a virtual lock to be the Libertarian Party candidate for president, which he was in 2012. As such, he’d appear on the ballot in November in all 50 states. Only three candidates will be able to say that, the Democratic Party nominee, the Republican Party nominee and the Libertarian Party nominee.

That’s a big deal.

A matter of polling

Why does polling matter so much?

Once party nominees are chosen, only those who score 15 percent or greater in a pre-selected cross section of national surveys are invited to participate in the televised national debates. Normally, that would mean the Republican and Democratic nominees exclusively — 15 percent is a high threshold — but this year is different. If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New York businessman Donald Trump, each with high negative ratings, are the major party candidates, Johnson could easily get himself onto that stage — if he were included in the polling.

There have been hundreds of national surveys conducted this year; only one has included Johnson. In March, the respected Monmouth University Poll pitted him against Trump and Clinton in a three-way race and Johnson scored 11 percent of the vote. A modicum of publicity would almost certainly put him over 15 percent, especially as frustrated supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders and “Never Trump” voters become faced with a stark general election choice and begin looking for new options. A good debate performance or two could conceivably make Johnson a legitimate contender, out of nowhere, in a three-way race.

Potential appeal

Johnson has almost unique potential to appeal to voters from across the political spectrum as it’s currently defined. He describes himself as a “classical liberal,” which roughly translates into a small government fiscal conservative and a social liberal. He believes in as much personal and economic freedom as feasible and abhors big-government bureaucracy and crony capitalism.

It’s a viable message, and he can back it up.

As a two-term governor, Johnson was a famed fiscal and regulatory hawk, vetoing more legislation than every other governor in America combined. At the same time, Johnson is pro-choice (within federal limits), pro-gay rights and pro-marijuana legalization. He pulls votes almost evenly from Clinton and Trump, according to the Monmouth survey, although slightly more from Clinton. Johnson has received positive coverage in conservative periodicals like National Review and progressive mainstays like Mother Jones.

How many presidential candidates can say that?

Johnson, a genuinely affable man who couldn’t be easier to talk with, is so confident in his crossover appeal that he challenges voters, wherever he goes, to take a simple online questionnaire called that asks participants policy questions and determines with which presidential candidate they mostly align. (I scored 90 percent with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; 75 percent with Johnson; 74 percent with Trump and 59 percent with Clinton.) It’s a thorough survey, although I thought it gave short-shrift to foreign policy issues.

No conspiracy theory

So why is Johnson being excluded from polling? Is this some deep conspiracy?

I think not. It’s more likely a matter of polling institutes and news outlets having become conditioned to two-party races. The news and polling industries are designed for two-, not three-candidate races. But that doesn’t make excluding Johnson from surveys and news coverage right or democratic.

How would Johnson do in a hypothetical debate with Clinton and Trump? Would someone so unassuming have the fire in the belly to take it to two hard-hitting candidates?

It was the fastball Johnson had been waiting on: “When I ran for re-election as governor of New Mexico, a 2-to-1 Democratic state,” he explained, “the Democrats put up the best candidate they had. I was leading in the polls; I controlled the number of debates we would have — I had everything to lose from debating. Guess how many debates I gave him?”

Twenty-nine was the answer.

If there is any fairness in the American electoral system, this historic and highly unusual presidential race could become more interesting still.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.