Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson is working hard to boost his poll numbers so that he can join the major-party candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, in the nationally televised debates in September and October.
Johnson believes that if he’s up there on the stage, gaining valuable national exposure in what likely will be the largest presidential-debate audience in history, he can blow apart all of the pundits’ expectations for how this election will turn out.
“This is a crazy election,” Johnson said at a campaign event last Friday. “You know how crazy this election is? I’m going to be the next president of the United States. That’s how crazy!”
Johnson needs to get to 15 percent in the polls to make the cut, and right now he stands at about 10 percent. Libertarian groups are pouring more than $1 million into cable-TV ads and other messaging leading up to the first debate.
This should worry the Clinton team — even though Johnson is a former Republican governor. In the latest NBC/Survey Monkey poll, Clinton holds a respectable 6-point lead over Trump in a head-to-head match-up, 48 percent to 42 percent. But when you add in Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Clinton’s lead drops to four points (close to the margin of error), with Clinton at 41 percent, Trump at 37 percent, Johnson at 11 percent and Stein at 5 percent.
This has been consistent in polls for weeks. Stein is garnering very limited support — most likely from fringe leftists and disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters, many of whom are expected to sit out the election — while Johnson appears to pull in independent voters, more so from Clinton than from Trump.
“The one group that is open to changing their minds are registered Independents who do not lean toward either party,” NBC News wrote on Monday. “Trump has made inroads with this group.”
Clinton, meanwhile, has not. Independents who don’t like Trump appear to be breaking for Johnson, who has positioned himself as fiscally conservative, socially liberal and aggressively non-interventionist.
Conservative radio talker John Ziegler headlined a blog post over the weekend, “Why Isn’t Donald Trump Campaigning for Gary Johnson to Make the Debates?” He believes that Johnson’s pro-marijuana and pro-compassionate-immigration-reform policies, as well as his insistence that, yes, man-made climate change is a real thing, appeals to young, progressive voters who aren’t impressed with either Clinton or Stein.
“[O]ne of the more interesting phenomena of the polling in this race is that it appears when Johnson alone is added into the mix, Hillary’s lead over Trump actually shrinks slightly,” Ziegler wrote. “This seems to be because Johnson’s ‘base’ is made up of younger people who, without him to choose from, are far more likely to support Hillary than Trump.”
Johnson, who has suggested that one of the reasons voters are drawn to him is that he is much more personally likable than Trump and Clinton, is optimistic he’ll be in the debates. But he recognizes what it likely will mean if he doesn’t make it to 15 percent and is excluded from the stage. “I would say,” he admitted over the weekend, “game over.”