Will the Libertarians Get the 'Colbert Bump'?

Presidential nominee Gary Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld do late-night—and maybe, just maybe, can go mainstream. 

Kevin Kolczynski / Reuters

Presidential candidate Gary Johnson is just looking for a platform.

Not one composed of policy positions—he’s got one of those. As the Libertarian Party’s nominee, Johnson champions a socially liberal, fiscally conservative brand of politics that he thinks could draw major-party defectors this year.

No, what Johnson needs now is a much higher-profile stage and a microphone—so he can reach more Americans than a candidate from his party ever has before. And Thursday night, in his first late-night network-TV appearance, he got a big one.

“A woman’s right to choose, marriage equality, legalizing marijuana,” Johnson rattled off in an interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, introducing some of his party’s values to the mainstream audience. “Come on—let people make choices in their own lives that only people should be making.”

Johnson’s visit to the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, along with his running mate Bill Weld, was but the latest stop in his gimme-more-free-media tour. The two-time Libertarian Party nominee is chasing bigger poll numbers both so he can grow his now-niche base and so he can qualify for the presidential debates, which third parties see as key to securing legitimacy and greater popularity. Johnson has bemoaned the lack of coverage he has received in the past, but in recent weeks, things have started to pick up. He got silly on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on Comedy Central; gave his longest C-SPAN interview ever, a point of pride; and is now pretty regularly featured in mainstream political stories. While his poll numbers are not as high as they need to be—15 percent in multiple surveys to make the debates—they are higher than they were last cycle. And it’s a victory for Johnson that he has been included in polling at all.

But Thursday night represented a milestone. Colbert’s show reaches roughly 2 to 3 million people; its ratings fall behind those of late-night star Jimmy Fallon, but its reach is a heck of a lot longer than C-SPAN’s. And Colbert as a host offers something different to his political guests, of whom he has had many at CBS. He does not play a right-wing caricature like he did on The Colbert Report, but he still retains some of his smart-guy snark and brings a depth of political knowledge to conversations that a guy like Fallon does not.

Johnson and Weld, both former Republican governors of blue states, joined an ever-growing list of politicos to appear on the show, including Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and the handful of presidential candidates who stopped by in the program’s early weeks last year.

Much of Thursday night’s interview focused on exactly what Johnson and Weld stand for. Johnson framed his philosophy as “always [coming] down on the side of choice,” in a reference to Libertarians’ emphasis on self-determination. “I like to say that I want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom,” Weld said, explaining those locations as Democratic and Republican interests, respectively.

Johnson and Weld are trying to draw voters from across the political spectrum, though Weld specifically noted the potential for Republican converts. “There’s a lot of Rs out there that haven’t signed on with [Donald] Trump yet,” he said. “We’ve gotta be what they’re waiting for.” In an interview after the taping, Johnson explained that a series of recent events in the race have emboldened his candidacy: Trump becoming the presumptive Republican nominee; announcing Weld, who governed Massachusetts in the 1990s, as his running mate; and the tapering-off of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. In the Colbert interview, he jokingly embraced Trump’s characterization of him and Weld as “fringe candidates,” noting that he and Weld have long supported social policies that are now growing in popularity. “By ‘fringe,’ I think what he’s saying is the majority of Americans are fringe, and that’s just not the case,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who appeared on Colbert’s Comedy Central show multiple times, was frank with the host about his goals: getting a “Colbert bump” from the appearance and getting on the debate stage with Trump and Clinton. But he still has a lot of work to do. He and Weld aren’t top billing in the presidential race, and they weren’t top billing Thursday night, either. Their interview was the last of the evening, after two other guests—actor Patrick Wilson and CBS anchor Gayle King—had already had their fun with Colbert.