Excluded from most of the GOP primary debates, his New Hampshire campaign going nowhere, switching parties is now his best option
Going into his presidential run, Gary Johnson knew that he lacked name recognition outside New Mexico, where he spent eight years as governor, and that he wouldn't be able to raise as much money as most of his competitors in the Republican primary. But he figured that if he performed well in televised debates, focused his limited resources on campaigning in New Hampshire, and made his pitch to voters, he just might win over enough people to give him a fighting chance.
As the Jan. 10 primary draws near, however, Johnson 2012 no longer has paid staffers in New Hampshire, the candidate himself is no longer focusing his campaign there, and the longtime Republican is hinting that he might even drop out of the GOP primary and accept overtures from the Libertarian Party to seek its nomination.
Unlike Herman Cain, who turned superficially strong debate performances into rising support in the polls, or Rick Perry, who saw his stock drop after flubbing debate nights, Johnson wasn't even invited to participate in most debates. Was he excluded because he had insufficient support? Or was his dearth of support attributable to debate exclusions? Ultimately, it's impossible to know. Any campaign could conceivably catch on had major factors been different. Or not.
But Johnson insists he has been treated unfairly by debate sponsors. He makes a strong case. For weeks, he was upset that media organizations failed to include him in the very polls subsequently used to determine who had enough support to participate in a debate. Weren't they making it literally impossible for him to qualify?
Now, he is as exasperated at CNBC. "Did you follow the CNBC debate? They had two criteria for being included: being registered as a Republican in the contest and reaching 3 percent in any national poll prior to November 1," he told me. "I was at 3 percent in a Gallup poll in May. And they wouldn't return our phone calls. They wouldn't return our phone calls!" What's a presidential candidate to do when he actually meets the qualifications set by a debate sponsor ... but they won't call him back before the big night?
Johnson reacted to the various snubs by writing a letter of complaint to the Republican National Committee, with which he's always been on good terms. He hoped they'd urge debate sponsors to do things like include him in polls. When the RNC wrote back, he felt they hadn't adequately addressed his letter, and he concluded they were blowing him off. "I'm still hoping eternal that I'm going to get into the last five debates," he said. "But there's just no reason to think it's going to happen. There's no reason to think they'll reverse what they've been doing."
Nor is there reason to think he can succeed in New Hampshire without debate appearances. Opponents can outspend him 100-to-one, and neither old-fashioned campaigning nor publicity tours are working. "I rode my bike along with my son and fiance 500 miles across New Hampshire in 7 days. We would schedule town halls in the evenings. And really, no one would show up," he said, forthright as ever. "I don't know why. When I speak to crowds I get a good response."
Why not raise money from existing supporters to reach more New Hampshire voters via TV, radio, and mailers? Impossible to do, Johnson says, if you're excluded from debates and polls: "Somebody says, 'You're my guy. You're saying exactly what needs to be said. But I'm looking at a poll. And you're not even in the poll. Are you sure you're running?' That's a really tough one to overcome."
Thus the shift.
"My going to New York and basically making the media rounds, does that end up making a bigger difference in New Hamshire than going out and trying to meet people one by one?" he says. "Because that's not happening. I'm not getting people that even know who I am in New Hampshire."
So more media appearances. Less fruitless campaigning in New Hampshire. Attempts to get into future debates without expectation of success. And a campaign that's gone from long-shot to one-in-a-million.
Why stay in?
"If I drop out right now there'd be no reason to ever come back and do this again. It's gone unnoticed. I've gone from zero percent to arguably a couple million people following me. That's very real. But where it's at right now, there's no reason to think I'll ever do anything different than one percentage point," Johnson said. "And I need to stay in this to see, is there really no appetite for if you want to call it the liberty movement? Is there no appetite for balancing the federal budget? If I walk away from this one percent, so be it. But I don't want to walk away at this point. I really do think this message speaks for a majority of people in this country."
Johnson didn't tell me outright that he'll seek the Libertarian Party's nomination. But given the setbacks he's suffered, his failure to attract a larger following in the GOP race, the unlikelihood of being included in future debates, and his ongoing faith in his message and curiosity about its upper limit, I can't see why he wouldn't seek it. He's an extreme athlete who summited at Mt. Everest. Going a long way and then quitting by choice? That's the thing that would drive a guy like him crazy. He's also been hinting to other reporters that he may go the Libertarian route.
Image credit: Reuters