Here's a measure of how sadly obscure Gary Johnson really is: He wanted to meet with my editor but had to settle for meeting with me.
On a Friday afternoon in June, I'm sitting in the lobby of The Huffington Post offices, waiting for America's longest-shot presidential candidate to arrive. After checking my phone, I realize he's in the wrong building and walk across the street to find him.
"Is this another part of your building?" he asks as we wander back across Pennsylvania Avenue.
"No," I say. "Wrong address."
He's polling at 1 percent, struggles to persuade pollsters to include him in their surveys of voters, and, as of April, had raised roughly $800,000 to his opponents' $1 billion. As we ride the elevators up to the roof, I can't help but wonder aloud what message he's trying to send by staying in the race.
"The idea is to actually win," Johnson tells me without irony. "How does that happen? Well, the pie-in-the-sky scenario where that happens is my polling at 15 percent against Obama and Romney. That's a big obstacle in and of itself, but if that happens, I get to be in the national debates against the two of them. If that happens, anything is possible in both directions."
We sit down at the wooden rooftop tables overlooking the south end of the National Mall. The building is curiously quiet today, with most the office gone at a liberal blogger conference in Rhode Island or on their way to the beach. I'm only in town because I couldn't figure out how to put a panel together in time to justify going to the conference.
The saddest part of all, though, as I sit with America's Libertarian presidential nominee on this eerily sleepy Friday, is how remarkably reasonable his blend of fiscal responsibility and social tolerance sounds. He wants to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and end the war on drugs. He supports gay marriage and wants to rein in spending. A former two-term governor of New Mexico, he has twice the gubernatorial experience of Mitt Romney, and more executive experience than Obama had when he first ran for president in 2008. What does it say about the country that, at a time when the nation is more polarized than ever, a guy who merits consideration, or at least a little respect, can't get any?
Johnson is often charmingly self-effacing -- "I'm not crawling out from under a rock to run for president," he tells me -- but he waxes arrogant on a dime, describing himself in our interview as "the spokesperson for the largest-growing segment of American politics today," meaning libertarians. If that sounds like a lovably grandiose Lena Dunham moment, it also appears to be true.
Johnson's Libertarian Party has gained more acceptance in the past few years than at any point in the past two decades. A CNN poll out last year found 63 percent of respondents believe that government is doing too much, up from 52 percent in 2008, and 59 percent consider themselves "fiscally conservative and socially liberal," according to a poll by Zogby.
Pauline Arrillaga, writing for the Associated Press, says the movement goes far beyond any sort of "Ron Paul phenomenon" or useless polling number. "It's about unpasteurized milk and home births and taxes and, yes, freedom," she wrote. "Something's going on in America this election year: a renaissance of an ideal as old as the nation itself -- that live-and-let-live, get-out-of-my-business, individualism vs. paternalism dogma that is the hallmark of libertarianism."
Yet Johnson isn't expected to get any more than the fraction of one percent of the vote that libertarian candidates, historically, always have. That's because, as Slate's Dave Weigel explained, after telling pollsters they'll consider a third choice, most voters simply chicken out.
"Unless a third-party candidate's really well-funded and getting visibility similar to the others that they're facing, [they fade]," Public Policy Polling's Tom Jensen told Politico. "Most of these people who are saying they're voting for Gary Johnson right now will end up voting for Romney."
Conservative rhetoric post-Barry Goldwater has become increasingly libertarian, and Mitt Romney, with his robotic demeanor and seemingly irrational love of free-market enterprise, has cast himself as an Ayn Rand candidate of sorts, a dynamic that was underscored by libertarian-leaning Rand Paul's endorsement of him last month. Though it's been framed as a betrayal of the elder Paul and of his libertarian grassroots values, the reality is many self-identified libertarians will vote fiscally -- that is, for Romney -- rather than risk throwing away their vote on a third-party candidate.
Still, Johnson's betting that the libertarian base won't be willing to make that ideological leap, and he said he envisions a scenario in which he picks up the votes of Ron Paul's libertarian-leaning backers. If that happens, and it's already happening, there's reason to believe that America's much-mocked libertarian candidate does actually matter.
If there's an opportunity for Johnson to have an impact on the election, it's likely in Mountain states such as Colorado and Nevada, where his libertarian values and support for legalizing medical marijuana have helped him poll well above 5 percent. In his native New Mexico, those numbers are as high as 12 percent. "I really think Gary Johnson takes New Mexico off the table for Mitt Romney," Jill Hanauer, president of the Democratic firm Project New America, told Politico.
Jon Ralston, writing for the Las Vegas Sun, has said the Republican Party would be well within reason to take steps to actively thwart Johnson's campaign. "In case you think they worry too much -- and in case you wonder why they may try (quixotically, perhaps) to stop the state's Libertarian Party from nominating Gary Johnson to be on the November ballot -- remember 1998: John Ensign lost to Harry Reid by 428 votes," wrote Ralston. "The Libertarian candidate, Michael Cloud, received 8,044."
Yet Johnson rejects the notion that he could be a third-party spoiler for Romney, as Ralph Nader was for Al Gore in 2000, and he's never been one to worry about political expediency, as evidenced, perhaps, by his recent decision to grant an exclusive interview to The 420 Times.
When asked who inspires his political philosophy, Johnson made passing reference to the elder Paul but emphasized that, for the most part, he had arrived at his libertarianism in the most libertarian way of all: on his own.
"You know at the earliest age when I saw a 'wet paint' sign, I had to touch the paint to see if it was wet," he explained. "When I get stopped at the stoplight in the middle of the night and there's just no cars coming and the light is red, I go. I don't think I'm putting anyone in harm's way, and I'll just take the consequences. Because I'm a libertarian."
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