A Weld/Johnson Ticket Can Reach 15% in the Polls and Make the Debates
Depending upon the day and the poll, Donald Trump may be helped or hurt by the presence of two minor-party candidates in the 2016 presidential election: Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. Thus far, the polling on how Johnson and Stein will affect the general election is unclear; some polls say they’ll have no effect, while others show a two or three-point advantage for either Clinton or Trump when the Libertarian and Green candidates are factored in. What’s unclear is what sort of effect these candidates ― particularly Johnson ― might be found to have if they’re able to break 15% in national polls consistently and thereby gain entrance to the presidential debates.
Right now, Johnson and Stein remain fringe candidates, supported largely, it seems, by those whose feeling on the Democrats and Republicans is, in sum, “a pox on both their houses.” If Johnson gets into the debates, however, he might be able to draw serious attention from moderate Republicans currently too pragmatic about their vote ― and fearful of a Clinton presidency ― to back him.
What’s clear is that Johnson won’t break the 15% threshold without a steady stream of major endorsements from powerful Republicans between now and the end of the month. It’s equally clear that that won’t happen with Johnson at the top of the ticket.
One of the most coveted Republican endorsers this election cycle, Mitt Romney, has already said that his endorsement would immediately go to the Libertarians if former Massachusetts governor William Weld, Johnson’s vice presidential nominee, is put at the top of the ticket. Romney, like many moderate Republicans, has great respect for the socially liberal, economically conservative Weld, given that Weld managed to win election and meet with success as head of one of the nation’s bluest states.
Johnson, by comparison, is a wild card.
Despite having been Governor of another blue state, New Mexico, Johnson inspires little confidence or support within the Republican mainstream. He’s the sort of man who checks his watch when you ask him how long it’s been since he smoked or consumed marijuana; like Trump, he speaks off the cuff, but more like a well-intentioned but dopey neighbor than Trump’s Mussolini. He dresses casually, is only moderately articulate, and seems a perfectly nice lightweight.
Johnson has already said that he and Weld are essentially partners; if elected, they’d share a staff as well as one another’s counsel for all important decisions. They already do more joint interviews than any presidential ticket in recent memory, suggesting that their premise of a "co-presidency" of sorts is not merely a campaign ploy. Indeed, the public presentation of the two candidates as equals atop the ticket is consistent enough that it emphasizes that Johnson himself ― unlike Weld, an actual, long-time Libertarian ― probably agrees that he should play second fiddle to his running mate.
If the Libertarians want to take the White House ― or, failing that, if they want to prevent Trump from taking the White House, something at least Weld seems quite keen to do ― they must flip their ticket. And they have to do it in the next three weeks, lest they have too little time remaining before the first presidential debate to gain a slew of endorsements and bump their poll numbers past 15% in five consecutive national polls.
Is ticket-flipping a possibility under Libertarian Party rules?
Officially, probably not. Both Johnson and Weld were nominated, albeit narrowly, at the Libertarian National Convention in May. Flipping the ticket would not just undermine but be in direct violation of the vote taken at the Convention, and moreover could pose problems for Libertarian ballot access going forward. In theory ― though I've found no record of this occurring in major-party politics ― Johnson could resign from the ticket and have Weld immediately appoint him as his running mate, but that might signal sufficient turmoil on the ticket to scare off potential donors and endorsements.
And yet unofficial ticket flipping is such an easy thing to do that Donald Trump tried to do it two weeks ago and no one even noticed. Indeed, the news broke in mid-July, albeit with little fanfare, that Trump's son Donald (Jr.) called John Kasich to offer the Ohio governor the power to handle both “domestic and foreign policy” in the White House if Kasich would simply accept a vice presidential nod. In other words, Trump offered Kasich the opportunity to be President in all but name, while Trump himself would act as a sort of goodwill ambassador both at home and abroad (irony of that premise noted). Kasich refused, but some suspect that Indiana governor Mike Pence, now Trump's VP, was offered the same deal.
Now Gary Johnson needs to make the same decision Trump did two weeks ago.
If Johnson signals that Weld will not only be in the room for all important decisions, but will set the agenda for the ticket in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, Romney will come aboard. That could lead to a Republican exodus from Trump ― beginning with John McCain and several Bushes, spreading quickly to Paul Ryan, and possibly penetrating as far as the House Republican caucus, which just yesterday saw its first member formally endorse a candidate other than Trump ― and thereafter, in short order, to a consistent 15% or greater placement in the polls for the Libertarian Party.
And if Johnson manages to get into the presidential debates, all bets are off on what role the Libertarians could play in this year’s election. This is particularly true if both Johnson and Weld hype Weld’s vice presidential debate appearance as a preview of the man who’d be calling the shots in a Johnson administration.
There’s already some money pouring into the Johnson/Weld coffers, and public endorsements from just a few powerful Republicans would signal that the ticket is (at worst) palatable, and at best viable. That would give Republicans sufficient cover to vote for Johnson; while knowing it would likely ensure a Clinton victory, they could credibly claim that Johnson and Weld were the most Republican candidates running, and that they did in fact have a shot at viability with the Super Bowl-like viewership the 2016 presidential debates are likely to receive.
In an election year in which turnout is expected to be low and both of the major-party candidates are disliked by a majority of Americans, there’s definitely room for a moderate Republican ticket to garner the 70% of Republicans open to someone other than Trump and the 50% of Democrats open to someone other than Clinton.
That is, if Weld is at the top of the Libertarian ticket ― be it officially or unofficially.
The future of the nation may well rest, now, on Gary Johnson’s hubris ― or lack of it. But given how much weed Johnson consumes, it’s hard to believe he couldn’t be sanguine about taking a back seat to his more popular and respected running mate.
A public defender in New England from 2000 to 2007, Seth Abramson is now an Assistant Professor at University of New Hampshire and the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University). He is also the author of six books, most recently DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).