Thursday morning on Morning Joe (MSNBC), Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson made one of the most embarrassing gaffes a presidential candidate can make when asked by host Mike Barnicle for his position on Aleppo.
“And what is Aleppo?” Gary Johnson asked.
In case you don’t know (and you’re not running for president, so it’s not as big of a deal), Aleppo is a city in Syria that since 2012 has been a crucial battleground in the ongoing civil war between president Bashar Al-Assad’s military and it allies and the loose coalition known as the Syrian Opposition. Although ISIS is not directly involved in the ongoing Battle of Aleppo, as many pundits have claimed (here’s looking at you, Thom Hartmann), the city’s significance in the larger conflict which has seen intervention from military powers such as the United States and Russia, as well as the displacement of 11 million Syrians, means that anyone who has to ask on a television news program “What is Aleppo?” has no business being anywhere near the White House.
Many pundits (and meme-makers) are calling this gaffe “the end of Johnson’s campaign,” or making similar statements, but I’m not so sure. The problem is that no libertarian has any business being anywhere near the White House anyways, so why should something like this matter?
There are two types of people who vote for third-party candidates. There are those (mostly in deep-blue and deep-red states) who consistently vote for their chosen third party almost every election. Many of them are more concerned (and rightly so) with ending the two-party system than with actual hopes of electing someone like Ralph Nader or Gary Johnson.
And then there are those that might otherwise have voted Democratic or Republican, but for whatever reason in a given election year just feel that they cannot support the candidate that most closely matches them on the left-right spectrum.
The 2016 election has seen a surge in these second types of voters due to both the Democrats and Republicans having nominated the two most disliked candidates in history. Gary Johnson stood at percent in a recent poll (the day before this gaffe, actually), which is significant for a third-party candidate, and another poll has him polling in double-digits in a whopping 42 states.
And I’d wager that these numbers are unlikely to change too much, even after a gaffe that would likely end the political career of Clinton or Trump (or even Jill Stein, honestly). To understand why, you have to understand the types of people that are supporting Johnson.
Since the 1970s, the Libertarian Party has consistently received less than 1% of the vote in presidential elections (the only time they actually broke it was in 1980 with Ed Clark and David Koch on the ticket; they garnered 1.06 percent of the vote that year). Johnson ran in 2012 and that year received the highest number of votes in Libertarian Party history at well over 1.2 million votes, which amounted to .99 percent of the total votes for that election. All together, in their history, their vote count in presidential elections has averaged .44 percent.
Now obviously national presidential polls taken 2-3 months before the election are non-indicative of what the final results will be, but the disparity between .44percent and 7percent (even higher in some polls) requires explanation. That small core of hardcore libertarians, the ones who might actually be affected by the “Aleppo” gaffe, is not nearly enough to account for these numbers.
Clearly Johnson is drawing his support from elsewhere. Some can safely be explained by right-wing dissatisfaction with Trump, but not quite enough as many Trump-hating Republicans are also moving to Hillary. Many pundits (here’s looking at you again, Thom Hartmann) are surprised that a hefty percentage of Johnson’s support is probably coming from former Bernie Sanders supporters, but they really shouldn’t be, and the reason why is the same reason why “Aleppo-gate” probably will not hurt Johnson as much as many seem to think.
Speaking candidly as a former Sanders supporter myself, who was active with the campaign and spent many hours networking with other supporters, I am confident that the reason many people gravitated towards the Bernie Sanders “political revolution” had much less to do with policy and much more to do with messaging and perception.
It may come as a surprise that people who would support a self-described socialist would then turn their loyalties to a libertarian when libertarianism and socialism are literally diametrically opposed philosophies. In fact, for many (as many as 18 percent, perhaps?) Bernie Sanders supporters, the draw was never socialism or left-wing ideals at all.
Leftists are loathe to admit it, but one of the reasons (again, one of, I need to stress that) that Sanders garnered such surprising (to some) support was because of his “outsider” status and his willingness to go against long-held establishment positions, even within the Democratic Party. This perception of Bernie as “anti-establishment” was bolstered by his refusal to take special-interest money.
This sentiment is at a high point in the United States right now due to an anemic economic recovery and a historically unpopular Congress. It’s why Trump was able to dominate the Republican primary, it’s why Bernie Sanders mounted a legitimate challenge to Hillary Clinton, and it’s why the Libertarian and Green parties are polling better than they ever have before.
People vote with their emotions, not by reason and logic, and libertarians are famous for their domestic-policy driven platform with a heavy emphasis on non-interventionism. It’s a laudable ideal in practice and probably accounts for Johnson’s unfamiliarity with Aleppo (the largest city in Syria, the center of the most important foreign policy issue facing America at the moment, and one of the longest continually-inhabited cities in the world).
So a former Sanders supporter, for example, might look at the Aleppo gaffe and shrug. “So what? He wants to legalize weed and end foreign wars. And, most importantly, he’s not Clinton or Trump.” By nature, the people most likely to support a third-party candidate, especially in 2016, are less likely to trust (or care about) what mainstream pundits, reporters, and writers think.
So let’s have our fun at Johnson’s expense. He certainly deserves it. Just don’t expect his poll numbers to budge very much.