Live Free or Trump
Gary Johnson has climbed Mount Everest before.
This is not a metaphor about how hard it is to operate outside our two-party system. It’s a real thing that a presidential candidate has done. It just happens to also work, you know, as a metaphor.
Gary Johnson is the former Republican governor of New Mexico. During his two terms in office, he slashed the state budget while pushing for tax cuts, school vouchers and the legalization of marijuana. In 2003, after he left office, and shortly after breaking his leg, he climbed Mount Everest — the stuff of campaign ad makers’ dreams.
Now, as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, Mr. Johnson is facing another daunting task: getting attention, and votes, as a third-party presidential candidate.
In a normal election year, Mr. Johnson’s candidacy would garner about as much publicity and respect as any third-party candidate’s, which is to say, close to zero. But this time is different. The Republican Party appears to be eating its own tail, with millions of voters lining up for a candidate that many party leaders find morally and politically reprehensible. And now, in retaliation, some of those party leaders are starting to look for their own Naderian spoiler candidate to prevent Donald J. Trump from winning the presidency.
Last Thursday, three influential conservative activists convened a meeting of anti-Trump Republicans in Washington to discuss the feasibility of running a third-party candidate. According to The Washington Post, the tone of the meeting was “muted and downbeat” — perhaps a sign of the resignation party elites are feeling as they realize Mr. Trump is likely to be their nominee.
The anti-Trump, anti-Hillary Clinton crowd isn’t out of options just yet. Some have suggested putting up an independent candidate, or going all in for Senator Ted Cruz. But an absurd, unpredictable election season sometimes merits an equally absurd, unpredictable response. That’s where Mr. Johnson comes in.
As the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2012, he won around 1 percent of the popular vote. If he somehow were elected president, he would be the first commander in chief to have posed shirtless in GQ and served as the chief executive of a medical cannabis company.
It’s unlikely that Republican elites would ever rally round someone like Mr. Johnson. But as a firewall to prevent Mr. Trump from taking over the Oval Office, the Libertarian Party nominee — whom they disagree with on many subjects — may be their best shot.
The biggest hurdle anti-Trump Republicans must overcome, aside from finding a candidate willing to go into the wilderness for them, is getting on the ballot. The presidential election system is a patchwork of state deadlines and ballot requirements. Ralph Nader, who critics say helped usher George W. Bush into the White House by running as a Green Party candidate in 2000, is extremely familiar with the ballot requirements, having been booted off the Pennsylvania ballot in 2004. While Mr. Nader is happy to rail against the “two-party tyranny” of the American electoral system, he thinks starting a third-party run at this point in the election season a near-impossible goal.
“It’s almost too late, unless you’re a multibillionaire,” Mr. Nader said. “Other than just a tailored two- or three-state approach, I don’t see it happening.”
Even if anti-Trump forces are able to put a third-party candidate on the ballot, it is a limited victory: Ensure Mr. Trump loses, while also ensuring Republicans split their votes and get another Democrat elected.
After Mr. Johnson earns his party’s nomination for a second time, which he appears likely to do, his key challenge will be making it to the debate stage. Last year, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party filed a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates to change the national polling threshold that dictates that only candidates polling at 15 percent or higher can join in.
“There is no way that a third party wins the presidency without being in the presidential debate,” Mr. Johnson said. “The contention is on our part that if you’re on the ballot in enough states to mathematically be elected, then you should be included in the presidential debate.”
He pointed out that, unlike whichever independent candidate anti-Trump Republicans are thinking of putting up against Mr. Trump, the Libertarian Party — which will host its nominating convention in Orlando, Fla., over Memorial Day — will be on the ballot in all 50 states come November.
“There’s not another third party. There’s not. It’s just not going to happen,” he said, then added, “It could be me!”
Mr. Trump has played the primary process masterfully, staging his coup from within the palace walls. He capitalized on the very rules the Republican National Committee changed after the drawn-out 2012 primary election to make more states award their delegates as winner-take-all rather than proportionally.
Instead of ousting Mr. Trump and forcing him to run as a third-party candidate, Republican elites now find themselves, or their preferred candidates, losing control of their own party. After the meeting of anti-Trump conservatives last Thursday, one of the meeting’s organizers, the right-wing radio host Erick Erickson, put out a statement from the group.
“We intend to keep our options open as to other avenues to oppose Donald Trump,” he wrote. “Our multiple decades of work in the conservative movement for free markets, limited government, national defense, religious liberty, life and marriage are about ideas, not necessarily parties.”
It is noteworthy that Mr. Trump is running a campaign safely within the two-party system, considering he is a Voltron-like candidate built using the most successful parts of past independent campaigns.
Like George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who ran a third-party presidential campaign in 1968 after his segregationist views put him on the fringes of the Democratic Party, Mr. Trump uses strident racial language to stoke his supporters’ anger. Like Ross Perot, who won 19 percent of the popular vote as an independent in 1992, Mr. Trump is an eccentric billionaire who is fun to watch on TV, which has allowed him to move ahead without relying on traditional fund-raising channels. Like Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate in 2000, he is repackaging warmed-over economic and cultural nationalism and selling it as the future of the conservative movement. Mr. Trump even has a bit of Teddy Roosevelt, whose penchant for strongman bluster made him a populist hero when he ran as the Progressive (a.k.a. Bull Moose) Party candidate in 1912.
For now, the Republican Party’s leaders are trying to maintain some semblance of control over what’s happening to them. Appearing on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said it was both too early and too late for his party to think about starting an independent bid.
The host, George Stephanopoulos, asked Mr. Priebus what he thought of the Stop Trump movement, and whether recruiting a third-party candidate would doom the Republican chances of winning back the White House. “Well, sure it would — of course it would,” he said. “But it isn’t likely, and it’s probably too late, and there is no definitive answer right now as to who the nominee is going to be of our party. So I think all of it’s far too early.”
It’s Schrödinger’s primary now: both alive and dead, too early to speculate about and too late to save. Worst of all, the anti-Trump movement’s only hope to save the party might be a Libertarian. According to Julia Azari, a professor of political science at Marquette University, a Trump victory would actually prove worse for the Republican Party in the long run than another Democratic presidency.