Gary Johnson and Bill Weld may be the Ralph Naders of 2016, though it’s not clear whether the casualty would be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Johnson and Weld, former GOP governors, were tapped last weekend as the Libertarian candidates for president and vice president. This party has never received even one percent of the vote in a presidential election.
But never have the two presumptive major party nominees been so unpopular. Thus the Johnson-Weld ticket hopes to get the highest third-party vote since Ross Perot captured 19 percent running as an independent in 1992.
They wouldn’t necessarily need big numbers to make a big impact. Nader, running as the Green Party candidate, received less than 3 percent of the 2000 vote. But he probably cost Democrat Al Gore the election by taking ballots in the excruciatingly tight contest in Florida.
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Polls show receptivity to a third-party candidacy this year, but there is no reliable data measuring the appeal of the Johnson-Weld ticket. Pollster Ann Selzer wonders if initially it would come from disgruntled backers of Bernie Sanders. “Sanders supporters averse to supporting Clinton might give the libertarians a look,” she said. “For now.”
Most of the fire from the Libertarian nominees so far has been directed at Trump, with Weld even drawing parallels to what happened in Nazi Germany.
The viability of Johnson and Weld depends on evolving factors. One is whether anti-Trump Republicans find another independent candidate. Another is whether Libertarians could poll strongly enough to participate in presidential debates; they’d need a 15-percent showing.
Libertarians share with Republicans a devotion to free markets and opposition to tax increases and government spending, so their ticket might be a convenient parking spot for moderate and economically conservative Republican voters who can’t stomach the ideologically malleable Trump.
But Johnson, governor of New Mexico from 1994 to 2003, and Weld, the Massachusetts chief executive from 1991 to 1997, will have little appeal to social conservatives because Libertarian positions on abortion and gay marriage align them with liberal Democrats. Nor are they likely to win favor from foreign policy hawks hostile to their non-interventionist views.
They might have appeal to Democrats and independents. Clinton’s negatives are high among younger voters, many of whom are sympathetic to Libertarian opposition to criminal penalties for drug use.
There probably wouldn’t be much support for Libertarians among Latinos and African-Americans or with labor-oriented voters. And there are fringe positions that may alienate some potential voters. Libertarians are skeptical of Social Security and their opposition to most laws against recreational use of drugs extends even to heroin.
Still as a protest vehicle against two flawed candidates and the possibility of financial backing from anti-government fat cats, Johnson-Weld can’t be dismissed. And in a year where success has come to a Vermont socialist and a billionaire business and entertainment mogul who revels in insults, all bets are off.