WASHINGTON — Many savvy observers of this campaign believe that Donald Trump is relying on earned media to an unprecedented degree for a presidential candidate.
They obviously haven’t been paying attention to Gary Johnson.
The Libertarian Party’s nominee is on yet another media tour of D.C. this week. He visited PRI on Wednesday, as well as BuzzFeed News’ bureau, plus the Washington Examiner. Earlier in the day he appeared on Maria Bartiromo’s show, and last night he did Hardball. On Thursday, he’s got a lunch at the National Press Club alongside his running mate, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld. Just a couple weeks ago, he was here for a similar lightning round of interviews, sitting down with Politico and the Washington Post. And he also had a recent sojourn in New York doing much the same thing.
As Johnson readily admits, he is centering his entire campaign strategy around media. Focusing on media, he said, “reaches a lot more people and ends up to be a lot more effective.”
Asked on Wednesday whether he was holding traditional campaign events with voters, Johnson said, “Virtually none.”
Johnson must reach 15% in national polls in order to be included in the general election debates alongside HIllary Clinton and Donald Trump. In polls where his name has been included, he has sometimes reached as much as 10%. Johnson resents the fact that many pollsters don’t include him as an option when conducting their polls. And he figures he’ll increase his chances of getting included if he builds a larger national profile — hence the media blitz.
“I don’t have a bloody head, I’m not banging my head against the wall,” Johnson said. “In the 2012 cycle, I was trying to get elected president one person at a time, so I’m not repeating any of that. That’s what was available, so that’s what I was doing.”
This time around, though, the media “demand is now insatiable.”
This is partly — or almost entirely — because the two main candidates are epically unpopular. Trump more so — his unfavorables have hit 70% — but Clinton hasn’t exactly seized the hearts and minds of the American people either. So into the void has stepped the rangy, rock-climbing former governor of New Mexico, who believes recreational marijuana should be legal and who was nominated at a party convention that included a candidate for party chair who appeared onstage in a thong.
Johnson acknowledges that his higher profile this year is due to the dilemma facing America in the form of its two options for the White House.
“If Mickey Mouse were the third name he’d be rallying the same way, but Mickey’s not on the ballot in all 50 states,” Johnson said. (Johnson is on 36 so far, though he says he’s already farther along than at this point in 2012, a year when he ended up on the ballot in 48 states. Trickier ones this year have included Pennsylvania, which requires, as Johnson put it, a “shitload” of signatures.)
Another area where Johnson stands out: not holding fundraisers, which he views as “not a productive use of time.” Instead, he is relying solely on online fundraising and on super PACs supporting his bid, which include Purple PAC, a PAC launched by GOP strategist Ed Crane originally to support Rand Paul.
Though it was reported in May that the Koch brothers were planning to support Johnson — David Koch was actually the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 1980 — Johnson says he doesn’t speak with them.
“I’ve never talked to them and if they donated I’m gonna guess that we will never know if they donated,” Johnson said.
Despite the fact that Johnson stands as really the lone alternative to Clinton and Trump, he’s loath to use the opportunities they’re handing him — most notably, Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while at the State Department. FBI Director James Comey blasted Clinton for the email issue on Tuesday, calling her “extremely careless,” but did not recommend that the Justice Department press charges. On Wednesday, Johnson declined to take a firm stand on the issue.
“I have never been a stone-thrower, I’m not that guy,” Johnson said. “I’m gonna leave that to everybody else because everybody else seems to focus on that, I’ll just let them focus on it. When it comes to Hillary, it’s emails; when it comes to Trump, it’s all of his business dealings, and there seems to be armies that follow both and render judgments and editorials and I’m just not that guy.”
Johnson does say that he’s 180 degrees away from Trump on a lot of issues, and he criticizes Clinton for her more hawkish foreign policy views and her status as a symbol of the “establishment.”
“She’s not gonna stop intervening,” Johnson said of Clinton. Asked about Trump’s comments praising Saddam Hussein and suggesting Iraq was better off under him, Johnson said: “Since what has been done has been done I’m never one to go backwards, but there was balance in Iraq and of course all the Sunnis then fled to Libya, they fled to Syria, they became the opposition in those countries. What you’re pointing out is the unintended consequence of us going into Iraq.”
Johnson is a libertarian purist on surveillance — calling Edward Snowden a “hero” — and on marijuana legalization, as well. He likes edibles (he doesn’t smoke pot), but hasn’t ingested any since he began this campaign — he doesn’t believe in working under the influence. His choice of Weld, who hasn't always supported legalizing recreational marijuana, as a running mate was controversial among Libertarians. Asked if things had been patched over, Johnson pointed out that Weld had said on John Stossel’s show recently that he now supports legalization.
Obviously, Johnson does things differently, and says he would continue to do so as president (asked to name a potential secretary of state, he said he will have candidates apply for cabinet positions). And he insists this isn’t just a message candidacy; he really wants to be president.
“We’re actually getting traction this go around,” Johnson said.
But if he doesn’t win, that’s OK, too.
“I have a wonderful life, I want you to know that,” he said. If not elected president, he plans next year to participate in the “Ride the Divide” mountain biking race out west, the longest in the world.
Rosie Gray is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. Gray reports on politics and foreign policy.
Contact Rosie Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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