Why does Gary Johnson matter? A profile of the Libertarian nominee

by Alice Scarsi

While the media’s focus is firmly on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Gary Johnson continues to be the third most important protagonist in these elections. The Libertarian Party nominee provides an alternative for those not convinced by the two main candidates, and, as Johnson is on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Colombia, he could get enough votes in the swing states to have an impact on the final result.

“No insults, no threats, no bluffs:” these are the words chosen by Johnson to differentiate himself from Clinton and Trump. With his approval rating peaking at 9.1% on 14 September, according to RealClearPolitics’ polls, Johnson is unlikely to win the election. However, his candidacy may affect the result by gaining even a few of the votes that would otherwise go to Clinton or Trump. His policy on taxes and desire to decrease the size of the government may attract Republicans who cannot support Trump, but are not prepared to vote Democrat. At the same time, Democrats —Bernie Sanders’ supporters in particular— may see Johnson as an alternative. The Libertarian nominee admitted to sharing many of Sanders’ ideas and policies on CSPAN, Washington Journal’s radio programme.

The protest vote is a looming concern for the two main parties. Six out of the seven states labelled “most competitive” by FiveThirtyEight, see Johnson performing as well as or better than Trump and Clinton. This could suggest that swing states and undecided voters will take advantage of a third option if the candidate seems credible.

Disillusionment with the candidates chosen by the two main parties is not unique to this election cycle. The presence of a third rival nominee has grown 20% between 2003 and 2013, according to a Gallup study. Nor is it a solely 21st century phenomenon, a memorable example of a third party nominee who managed to create turmoil is Ross Perrot, who briefly lead the presidential polls in the 1992 presidential election.

Johnson presents himself as an easy-going politician, turning up to rallies and interviews in casual clothes. He is also a practical leader interested in giving as much freedom as possible to both individuals and the market. Having started his political career as a Republican in a strongly Democrat state, Johnson has the potential to attract voters from across the parties.


Before entering politics, Johnson was already well known in the southwest as the founder of one of the leading construction companies in New Mexico —Big J Enterprises. Founded in 1976, a year after his graduation from the University of New Mexico, it grew from one employee to over 1,000 in 25 years. In 1999, Johnson sold the company for $10m.

Despite having no experience in public office, Johnson was elected as Governor of New Mexico in 1994, winning re-election four years later. He strongly believed in smaller government and the necessity of cutting state expenses. In eight years, he vetoed 739 bills, 200 of which were in his first six months as governor. “Any time someone approached him about legislation for some purpose, his first response always was to ask if government should be involved in that to begin with,” said former New Mexico Republican National Committee member Mickey Barnett to the Washington Times in 2011.

Johnson has run for the presidency before. In April 2011 he started campaigning to be the Republican nominee, but withdrew in December to run for the Libertarian nomination, which he went on to win. At the ballot, he gained only 1% of the popular vote.

Main Policies

Johnson is a fiscal conservative. He considers cutting taxes and eliminating the budget deficit to be of paramount importance. In 2012, he said that if he became president he would cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and even defence expenses. In May 2016, on the Adam Carolla Show, he explained his desire to create a single federal consumption tax after eliminating the income tax and the corporate tax and abolishing the IRS.

His Libertarian views are most apparent when Johnson speaks about social issues and the freedom of choice he thinks every individual should have, even over controversial issues like drugs. He applauds measures that fight sexual or religious discrimination and opposes regulations of the Internet and federal and state gun control legislation. His views on drugs differ from Clinton’s and Trump’s: not only does he advocate a new way of dealing with drug abuse, characterised by rehabilitation, rather than detention, but he is also committed to legalising marijuana for both recreational and medical use. Johnson was President and CEO of Cannabis Sativa Inc., a company that sells medical marijuana to states where its use is legalised, from 2014 to early 2016.

Johnson is vulnerable on foreign policy. In September 2016, he was twice tested and found lacking by MSNBC. The first and most famous instance took place on 8 September. When asked what he would do to tackle the refugee emergency in Aleppo, Johnson replied “What is Aleppo?” On 28 September, when MSNBC’s host Chris Matthews asked him to name his favourite foreign leader Johnson asked for forgiveness, saying that he was having “another Aleppo moment.”

During an appearance on Glenn Thrush’s Off Message, Johnson said that he would cut 20% of the federal defence budget, reducing the intervention by the US in areas where they are not directly involved. He also argued that diplomacy should be used more in order to avoid conflicts, especially with China and North Korea. On immigration, he strongly opposes the ‘Mexican wall’ promised by Trump and argues that instead of desperately trying to keep people out, America should facilitate the process of legal immigration.

Notable Quotes

“In 1999, I became the only sitting governor to publicly advocate the legalisation of marijuana. Senator Bernie Sanders came to that viewpoint — a position that most Americans support — 16 years later.”

“The Pentagon itself says that we could reduce U.S. bases by 20 per cent, and yet there’s not the political will to do that.”

“When it comes to Mexican immigration and that he [Donald Trump] would call immigrants from Mexico murderers and rapists look, that’s just not true,” Johnson said. “They are more law-abiding than U.S. citizens, and that is a statistic.”

Five Supporters

Fmr Representative Jim Kolbe – Arizona
Kathleen Curry – Fmr Colorado State Representative, Speaker Pro Tem
Judge Jim Gray, Ret – California Superior Court; 2012 Vice-Presidential candidate
Daniel Hannan – Member of the European Parliament (UK)
Benjamin Allbright – CBS Sports, Mile High Sports Radio

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