Lansing, Mich. — Gary Johnson likes to talk about the day Ted Cruz quit the Republican presidential race. “My Google hits went up 5,000 percent,” says the former GOP governor of New Mexico, now a Libertarian candidate for president. He’s speaking to nearly a hundred supporters in a packed room on the second floor of the Radisson Hotel, at a meet-and-greet on the evening of May 13. An activist from the Libertarian party’s Michigan wing passes out forms, seeking membership dues of $25 apiece. A cash bar in the corner sells beer and wine, apparently because there’s no such thing as a free drink.
This is one of the Johnson campaign’s larger events, according to aides. Just down the hall, roughly the same number of people attend a gathering of MITES, the unfortunate acronym of the Michigan Industrial and Technology Education Society. Wearing a pink shirt, blue blazer, and black Nikes, Johnson begins to make his case: “Amazing things are happening!”
Starting with a mite-sized base makes it easy for Google hits to inflate like a balloon. Yet an expansion of 5,000 percent is impressive almost no matter what, and Johnson has jumped at the chance to court Republicans who feel disoriented by the rise of Donald Trump. “Look, I can’t support Trump. You can’t either,” he says in a one-minute video released on the day of Indiana’s primary, when the New York populist became the presumptive GOP nominee. “We can fight for small government and conservative values. Just Google ‘Gary Johnson’ and find out.”
At a time when many conservatives harbor deep doubts about the man who will head the Republican ticket, Johnson enjoys an unprecedented opportunity to attract the alienated — and to make the Libertarians relevant at the level of presidential politics for the first time since the founding of their party in 1971. On May 18, a Fox News poll did something that almost no other major poll has done this year. It asked registered voters to name their presidential preferences — and it included Johnson as an option. He drew 10 percent against Trump’s 42 percent and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 39 percent. In March, a Monmouth University poll reported a similar result: 11 percent for Johnson, including 13 percent of self-identified Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats. These numbers won’t carry Johnson to the White House. Yet they’re a respectable showing for a guy who flies around the country in coach, carries his own luggage, and shakes hands with just about everybody who attends his events.
Even if his polling fails to improve, Johnson could shape the presidential race in November. Many Republicans insist that Ross Perot cost President George H. W. Bush his reelection in 1992, and lots of Democrats complain that but for Ralph Nader’s name on Florida ballots, Al Gore would have beaten Bush’s son in 2000. For his part, Johnson brushes off questions about his potential role as a spoiler: “I wouldn’t be doing this now if I didn’t think we had an opportunity to win.”
The 63-year-old Johnson says that he became a libertarian as a high-school student in Albuquerque, when he read a short tract whose title and author he does not remember. In 1972, he registered as a Democrat and voted for George McGovern “because of the war,” he says. He didn’t stay in the party for long. “As soon as I started making money, I registered as a Republican.” This was around 1975, when he graduated from the University of New Mexico and began a door-to-door handyman business that grew into a construction company with revenues in the tens of millions of dollars. He continued to regard himself as a libertarian in spirit and even thought about running on the Libertarian line in 1994, when he set his sights on the governorship of New Mexico. Then he went to the party’s meeting in Bernalillo County, the state’s largest. “It took about 45 seconds for me to come to grips with the fact that I would never get elected as a Libertarian,” he says. “It wasn’t an organization and it wasn’t my crowd.” So he entered the Republican race, won a close primary as a self-funder, and went on to beat an incumbent Democrat by ten points.
Vetoes made him famous. Johnson issued 739 of them, according to Ballotpedia, and that doesn’t count line-item vetoes of spending measures. “I turned them into an art form,” he says now. He didn’t win every battle, as the Democrat-dominated legislature sometimes overrode him. He also never came close to establishing the statewide school-voucher program he envisioned and repeatedly proposed. Yet he slowed the growth of government, presided over a series of tax cuts, and finished his eight years in office with fewer employees on the state payroll than when he started.
National notoriety struck during his second term, when Johnson became probably the highest-ranking elected official in the United States ever to back drug legalization. He called it his “outrageous hypothesis,” and he knew it was politically provocative. The denunciations poured in. Some of the loudest came from Susana Martinez, then a district attorney and now the GOP governor of New Mexico. “I have effectively pulled the pin on my political career,” Johnson confessed at the time, in an interview with Reason.
Yet his continued advocacy of drug legalization is a major source of what popularity he still enjoys. “I’ve always maintained that legal marijuana will lead to less substance abuse, starting with alcohol,” he says. “Nobody has ever documented a death due to a marijuana overdose.” Johnson says that he stopped using marijuana long before he become governor, but he adds that he started again about a decade ago, for the medicinal purpose of pain relief after a paragliding accident. When his injuries healed, he quit for a second time, but he took up the practice once more after joining Cannabis Sativa, a Nevada company that sells legal marijuana products. “As CEO, I felt I had an obligation,” he says.
Johnson also became a figure of abiding curiosity. “From the right angle, he looks like Harrison Ford,” wrote GQ, which doesn’t normally print admiring profiles of former Republican governors — let alone run pictures of them shirtless, as it did with Johnson in 2011. It turns out that there’s more to the man than vetoes and pot. He’s also a devotee of extreme fitness who follows a gluten-free diet. As governor, Johnson marked an anniversary of the Bataan Death March by running 25 miles through the desert while wearing combat boots and a backpack, and he also participated in Hawaii’s invitation-only Ironman Triathlon Championship — not just once, but three times. After leaving office, he scaled Mount Everest, where his toes suffered permanent damage from frostbite. He has topped the tallest peak on each continent, completing the “Seven Summits” two years ago with Mount Vinson in Antarctica. The day before his visit to Lansing, he embarked on one of his typical jaunts: a 74-mile bike ride in New Mexico. If he isn’t sitting in the Oval Office in the summer of 2017, he has big plans: “I’ll ‘ride the Divide,’” he says, referring to a mountain-bike race of more than 2,700 miles along the Continental Divide, from Canada to the U.S. border with Mexico.
In 2011, Johnson announced his candidacy for president — as a Republican. At a September debate, he had one of the fall’s best quips: “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration,” in a line he possibly borrowed from Rush Limbaugh. This was Johnson’s first shining moment, but also his last: He wasn’t invited to another debate. “It’s a rigged game,” he says. “To debate, we had to poll at a certain level, but pollsters didn’t include me in their surveys.”
Even before this, he had started to question his future in the party. As he watched a Fox News debate that had excluded him, Bret Baier asked the eight candidates present to raise their hands if they would walk away from a federal budget deal that included $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. From Mitt Romney on down, all eight raised their hands. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Johnson. “If you think spending is the biggest problem facing the country, you accept that deal. I didn’t raise taxes a penny in New Mexico, but this was just common sense.”
So Johnson quit the GOP and ran for president as a Libertarian. In the general election, he won almost 1.3 million votes, or nearly 1 percent of the total. For many Libertarians, this was an invigorating result. Never before had so many Americans voted for a member of their party. This year, Libertarian officials believe they’re poised to improve, particularly because their candidate is likely to appear on the ballot in all 50 states for only the second time in American history (Ed Clark was the first in 1980).
On May 18, Johnson announced his running mate: William Weld, who won two elections as governor in Massachusetts in the 1990s, serving as a Republican. This choice means that the Libertarian ticket possibly will have more governing experience than the Democratic and Republican tickets combined. Johnson’s immediate goal is to capture his party’s nomination at its national convention over Memorial Day weekend in Orlando, Fla., where he comes in as a heavy favorite, having won a series of straw polls.
If Johnson prevails, his next objective will be to earn a spot in the presidential debates in the fall. “There’s no way a third party wins the presidency without being in the debates,” he says. “You’ve got to have a microphone in your mouth, broadcasting to tens of millions of people instead of nobody.” The Commission on Presidential Debates plans to use its usual selection criteria: Getting on stage will require candidates to meet a threshold of 15 percent in five national polls. “Just put me in the polls!” says Johnson. “They can’t say I’m not polling well if they’re not polling me at all.”
If voters simply pay attention, says Johnson, he’ll do well: “The majority of people are libertarian and just don’t know it.” Johnson describes himself as “fiscally conservative and socially tolerant.” He wants to balance the federal budget through a mix of pro-growth policies, spending discipline (including military cuts), and federalism. He supports the Fair Tax — i.e., replacing federal taxes with a single national consumption tax — but says he would settle for a flat tax. To preserve Social Security, he would raise the retirement age, introduce a means test, and allow personal investments. Free markets and private innovation will continue to solve problems: “The future is Uber everything,” he says. “Not just for rides, but for doctors, lawyers, and everything.”
Johnson supports gay marriage and calls himself pro-choice on abortion, but he also believes Roe was wrongly decided and says that abortion should be legal only “up to the point of the viability of the fetus, when it can be sustained outside the womb even if by artificial means.” (As governor, he favored a parental-consent law as well as a ban on late-term abortions and won the endorsement of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico when he ran for reelection.) On immigration, he cites his experience as a border-state governor, scoffs at walls and fences, and talks about a generous program of work visas. On judges, he offers the name of a man he says he’d nominate to the Supreme Court: Bruce Fein, who is perhaps best described as an iconoclastic former Republican. On foreign policy, he speaks the language of “non-intervention.” Johnson says he has heard the mash-up term “conservatarian,” but he doesn’t use it and has not read The Conservatarian Manifesto, by National Review writer Charlie Cooke. He urges voters to visit a website: iSideWith.com, which offers a political quiz and tries to match participants with like-minded candidates.
Johnson hopes to attract Republicans turned off by Trump, but he thinks he also shares a bit of Trump’s outsider appeal. “The pitch that Donald Trump is making to the country is similar to the one I made in New Mexico. I’d never been in politics, I was successful in business, and I knew how to make things work,” he says. Then he continues: “But I’ve never said anything as uninformed as wanting to deport 11 million people, raise tariffs to 35 percent, kill the families of terrorists, and force Apple to make its products in the United States.”
Johnson recognizes his unique opportunity among anti-Trump Republicans: “Cruz would have held this thing together.” Yet he also believes he can pick up disaffected Democrats, especially among the millions who have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries: “When Hillary Clinton clinches the nomination, where do all those Bernie voters go?” He adds that when he answered the questions posed by iSideWith.com, he found himself aligned with a few of his rivals for the Libertarian nomination. “Outside of them, I was closest to Bernie,” he says, expressing surprise at the result and hoping it might lead to a new source of support. “Holy cow!”
Perhaps the anti-Trump and anti-Hillary factions will give Johnson a look, and then a boost. Given this year’s baffling politics, who can say with certainty that the former governor of New Mexico won’t play a part?
Libertarian optimists might find comfort by re-reading Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change,” he wrote in a 1982 preface to Capitalism and Freedom. “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Perhaps this has been the true purpose of Libertarians all along — to lie around until 2016, when they finally could present themselves to the legions of voters who suddenly wondered whether they still had a home in the old-fashioned two-party system.
In the months ahead, Gary Johnson will be waiting for them, just a Google search away.