If ever there was a year for a third party presidential surprise, it’s 2016.
The major party nominees are as unpopular as any candidates in memory. Party ties are frayed like we’ve never seen before. The Republicans nominated a candidate who only recently became a Republican and has alienated much of the party’s base. The close second in the Democratic race had never been a Democrat, leaving many of his supporters bitter.
Self-described independents, who now outnumber Republicans and Democrats, are ripe for the picking. It has been the kind of ugly campaign that should drive millions of voters into the arms of an amiable alternative.
As Bill Weld, the vice presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, explained in Worcester last week, he and presidential nominee Gary Johnson are just what a dispirited electorate is looking for. Both former two-term Republican governors of Democratic states — Johnson in New Mexico, Weld in Massachusetts — promise to break Washington’s partisan paralysis. Like most voters, they are fiscal conservatives and social liberals.
“We’re non-threatening; we’re middle-of-the-road and we’ve shown we can work across the aisle,” Weld said.
But it isn’t happening for the Libertarians. Polls have the Johnson-Weld ticket at around 7 percent, far from the 15 percent threshold required to get a place in the first three out of four planned debates. Like the rest of us, they’ve watched from the sidelines.
What went wrong? Lots of things.
The way to get to 15 percent in the polls and have a voice in the campaign conversation, especially if you don’t have much money, is through what Weld called “earned media.” Johnson isn’t great on TV, but Weld is glib, smart and entertaining, as those of us who covered him in Massachusetts can attest. I’d have stationed him in Manhattan with instructions to make his face as ubiquitous on cable talk shows as Donald Trump has been for the last year. Instead, he’s speaking at rallies of already committed Libertarians in places like Worcester and in Bangor, Maine.
When they’ve managed to break into the mainstream media, it has been for the wrong reasons. The Libertarian Party convention in May attracted more media attention than any of their previous gatherings. It also attracted the wild-and-woolly fringe of the party faithful, including a speaker who decided the convention had been too buttoned-down, so he treated the convention to a striptease. He ended up getting more airtime in TV convention coverage than Johnson and Weld.
The next time most voters heard from the Libertarian ticket was when Johnson flubbed a couple of easy questions in TV interviews. “What is Aleppo?” he responded to one question, describing it later as a “brain freeze.” The next time his brain froze, he dubbed it “an Aleppo moment,” a phrase that is likely his political legacy.
“Snap quizzes on live TV aren’t Gary’s strong suit,” Weld conceded before an Oct. 6 rally at the DCU Center in Worcester.
Weld stepped into it himself, telling two Boston Globe reporters he was focusing all his attention on Trump and was looking forward to getting involved in the fracture of the Republican Party he sees coming after the election. The story fueled speculation Weld wanted to replace Johnson at the top of the ticket and rekindled suspicion among longtime Libertarians that he might abandon the party he had so recently joined.
Weld tried to dampen that speculation, praising Johnson and declaring that “my Libertarian hat is firmly on.” But his White House ambitions are longstanding, and his party loyalties have never been binding. Weld has focused his fire on Trump from the beginning. He has been friends with Hillary Clinton since they worked together on Watergate investigations, and he refuses to attack her personally.
Weld is still upbeat about the Libertarians’ chances, at least in public, spinning scenarios about gaining momentum and winning enough Electoral College votes to send the election to the House of Representatives. It’s a tall order, as Weld well understands. But he has always been a happy warrior who enjoys stirring things up as much as getting things done.
Perhaps the biggest reason this isn’t the Libertarians’ year is that another candidate started stirring things up before they even got into the game. For voters who really want something different, who really want to shake up Washington, there’s Trump.
Trump campaigned at the DCU Center a year before Weld got there, packing 11,000 screaming supporters into the big hall. The Libertarian rally was an intimate affair in the lobby, drawing 100 or so supporters.
As for voters who consider Trump the scariest major party nominee in America’s history, a vote for a long-shot Libertarian, however amiable, is a huge risk. You get the impression that even Weld, in the secrecy of the voting booth, may choose Clinton.
Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.