When Gary Johnson became the Libertarian nominee for president in 2016, there was a brief moment when it looked like his candidacy could be a game-changer. The two mainstream party candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, had extraordinarily high unfavorability ratings, and that provided a rare opportunity for a third party candidate to break new ground in the popular and perhaps even electoral vote. In July 2016, the former New Mexico governor was polling at 13 percent of the popular vote, a figure that if it had held through Election Day would have made him one of the most successful third party candidates of all time — as well as a possible spoiler for either Clinton or Trump.
This did not last, of course. By September Johnson's share had fallen to around 8 or 9 percent of the popular vote, and by the time he had committed a series of major foreign policy gaffes — failing to recognize Aleppo as the war-torn Syrian city, unable to remember the name of a single major world leader he could say he respected — he had stopped being taken seriously as a credible candidate.
Yet despite these stumbles, Johnson still did remarkably well within a system set up to favor the nominees of the two major parties. With 3 percent of the popular vote, he outperformed every previous Libertarian presidential candidate, including Ed Clark in 1980 and Johnson himself when he ran in 2012. It was also the best showing for any third-party candidate in 20 years.
It's difficult to say whether Johnson's performance was a reflection of lingering high esteem for himself and the Libertarian Party or low esteem for the other two candidates, but going forward it certainly makes Johnson a figure to watch. Now that he's running for the United States Senate in New Mexico — and, according to a poll taken last month, ranks second after incumbent Sen. Martin Heinrich and above Republican candidate Mick Rich — Salon reached out to him for his thoughts about President Donald Trump and the future of the third party candidates.
What are your thoughts about the challenges that third party candidates are facing, and is there really a future for third parties given the seemingly unbreakable two-party system?
Well, what’s unbreakable about the two-party system is the money that’s involved, and whether or not we like to admit it or not, politics is money. In the case of Bill Weld and myself running in 2016, we had $12 million. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each had about $1.8 billion. [Fact check from Bloomberg: Trump raised $646.8 million and Clinton raised $1.191 billion, making their combined total roughly $1.8 billion.]
What you have to create is this notion that you can actually win. Right now in New Mexico, I think that that is a possibility in my candidacy running for the U.S. Senate. In the case of third parties, they got a . . . I said this before. Libertarians have to come up with some wins. They got to come up with one win. If I were elected as a Libertarian/Independent, hey, that could prove to be a catalyst all around the country. Could, I say, but hey, somebody’s got to do it to start it out. I didn’t think this would be me. This running for U.S. Senate came as a complete surprise to me. It was Aubrey Dunn coming to me as the Libertarian nominee for the U.S. Senate about eight weeks ago, and he said he was looking to drop out of the race and he wanted to name me as his replacement, believing that I had a chance to win. We looked at it and I believe that that opportunity actually exists.
Tell me more about your endorsement from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. How did that come about?
Well, just out of the blue. I mean, for me it was completely out of the blue and terrific. Wow, wow. That’s great. What’s at stake here is potentially being the swing vote in the U.S. Senate given how close the U.S. Senate might be after these elections. If New Mexico elects a Democrat or a Republican, that’s not going to be the case. If they elect, in this case me, because I’m the third party candidate, arguably that could be some big influence for New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.
My next question is a three-part question and I’m addressing the elephant in the room, pun intended, Donald Trump. In what areas are your policy positions aligned with Trump’s? Where are your policy positions not aligned with Trump, where would you oppose him? And considering that you got three percent of the popular vote in the presidential election, do you think that your margin could have made the difference between Trump winning the popular vote and not winning the popular vote, which as we both know, is something that he has discussed wishing had happened, that he had won the popular vote?
Well, if you took my three percent, if you took my results in any given space and added that to Hillary Clinton or Trump, it wouldn’t have made that difference. I don’t believe in any single state. [In fact Johnson's total was on its own greater than the difference between the two major candidates in ten states — Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — according to Politico.] Four and a half million votes, I’m kind of disappointed in the results, but people, clearly they’re going to the polls and voting for who they thought might have the ability to win. I didn’t fit in that category and I put that back on $1.8 billion versus $12 million. If you do the math on four and a half million votes and having spent $12 million, by far and away, I got the most bang for the buck.
What I agree with Trump on is the tax reductions. What I agree with Trump on are the reduction in rules and regulations. If rules and regulations simply add time and money to your life and don’t really make a difference with regard to health or safety outside of adding time and money, why have those regulations? I am speaking having served eight years as governor of New Mexico. I know how this works. I know how that can be accomplished and I’m going to argue I accomplished that.
The things I disagree with, the spending. If elected to the U.S. Senate, I intend to be the watchdog when it comes to government spending. I would love to be on the Senate Budget Committee. I would submit a balanced budget to Congress. You can’t submit a balance budget to Congress if you’re not going to reduce expenditures in the military. You can’t balance the budget if you’re not going to reform Social Security. You can’t submit a balanced budget if you’re not going to reform Medicaid and Medicare, that it be around. If borrowing money were the key to success, Zimbabwe would be the center of the world, followed by Venezuela. It doesn’t work and it won’t work for the United States.
This is just a Ponzi scheme and it’s incredibly unfair to our grandkids, our grandkids’ grandkids, that we’re borrowing $0.25 out of every dollar that we spend. I disagree with Trump. He has not turned his attention to cutting spending and I completely disagree with what he’s got to say with regard to immigration, being a border state. Don’t build a wall across the border. I completely disagree with Trump when he is implementing sanctions and I completely . . . on tariffs. I think that these subsidies also, I’m opposed to subsidies. I’m opposed to foreign aid. Foreign aid sounds great. It sounds like food and medicine to another country, when in fact it’s money to the despots that’s in charge.
I’m now going to switch to foreign policy. [About the] Aleppo gaffe — what have you done since that incident to create a foundation of foreign policy knowledge?
Well, what really irritates me to know is that we are engaged in foreign conflict where the United State security is not threatened in the campaign. Absolutely, I think Trump had 150 Aleppo moments. What do you do in the campaign when an Aleppo happens? Well, what you do is you hold a major foreign policy speech, in this case, by me. Two days later we’re in Chicago and nobody covered it. We had $12 million to spend. They each had $1.8 billion. Trump’s 150 gaffes were overshadowed by the money, by the firepower they were able to bring to overriding that.
In terms of economic issues, one of the big concerns from the Left is income inequality and the perception that if people who are struggling in poverty aren’t provided with some kind of safety net from the government, that their quality of life, in terms of health care, food, housing, education and opportunity, will deteriorate to an unacceptable level. What would you say to people who have those concerns?
Well, when you subsidize people not working, what are you going to get from that? You’re going to get people that don’t work. I was governor for eight years. A mixture of people being able to work and receiving government assistance, less government assistance than they were receiving before, but the ability to earn money as opposed to earning no money, that formula . . . all the “Help Wanted” signs in New Mexico went down for a period of about two months until the Supreme Court ruled because the Legislature sued me, that I didn’t have the ability to do that, that that needed to be legislated, that I could not do that administratively. Well, all the “Help Wanted” signs went back up because the Supreme Court ruled that I did not have the ability to do that.
Matthew, I talk about Uber everything. Using Uber as an example, you get a ride now for less money than you’ve ever paid before and you’re paying it to an individual driving the car that’s making more money than they have ever made before. I think you could apply that model to everything. Uber electrician. Uber plumber. Uber accountant. I think that what has been . . . when you start talking about minimum wage and lifting people out of poverty, it’s all about a job as opposed to creating your own job. I think federally, legislation could be passed to make it easier for you as an employee or as an entrepreneur to actually apply your goods and services in a way that the end user is paying less, but you’re making more. Eliminating the middle man. There is this emphasis on minimum wage. There’s an emphasis on subsidizing, not working and that doesn’t work.
I’m now going to shift gears completely and ask you as a New Mexican, how do you feel about "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul"? Are you a fan of those shows and how they represent your state?
I am. I mean, I’m just a fan. It’s cool to watch "Breaking Bad." It was cool to watch "Breaking Bad." I grew up in Albuquerque. Everything was where I grew up.
"Better Call Saul," the first season actually takes place during your governorship.
Wow, I didn’t . . . I watched like five episodes of "Better Call Saul." At some point I’ll watch more. Are they talking about me or just talking about the government?
No. I did the math. The first season is set in the year 2002. Then it’s 2003, 2004, etc. [Seasons 1, 2 and part of 3 are set in 2002, when Johnson was governor]
Politics in general was not mentioned. Somewhere in the background, while Jimmy McGill was turning into Saul Goodman, you were governing New Mexico.
I just want to make a cameo appearance on the show. Maybe if you can just put this in the article that they’ll let me have a cameo appearance. That would be fun.
Libertarian chair on why we need third parties
Matthew Rozsa interviews Nicholas Sarwark.
Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC. MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa
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