By Ryan Lizza
Not long ago, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2016 Presidential candidate, put a halt to his considerable consumption of marijuana. “The last time I indulged is about two months ago, with some edibles,” Johnson told me in late June, in the lobby of a midtown hotel. Johnson, who was the Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, also ran for President in 2012, as a Libertarian, and received just under one per cent of the vote, but he believes this year could be different. At the end of May, William F. Weld, the former moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts, became the Libertarian Party’s Vice-Presidential nominee, giving the Party its most mainstream ticket since its founding, in 1971. “It is beyond my wildest dreams that Bill Weld is my running mate,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Weld were set to appear that evening in a CNN town-hall special, which, it was later estimated, was seen by almost a million people. The stakes for Johnson were high. When pollsters include Johnson with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their surveys, he has been the choice of roughly ten per cent of respondents, and in a Times/CBS News poll released last week he hit twelve per cent. If his standing in the polls rises to fifteen per cent, he will likely qualify to participate in the Presidential debates. “If you’re not in the debates, there’s no way to win,” Johnson said. “It’s the Super Bowl of politics.” Johnson has many flaws as a candidate, but being unlikable is not one of them. If he is allowed to debate Trump and Clinton, the two most unpopular presumed nominees in decades, then the most unpredictable election in modern times could get even weirder.
Johnson told me that the last time he got high was when he ate some Cheeba Chews, a Colorado brand that High Times has called “America’s favorite edible.” The occasion was an evening out with his fiancée, Kate Prusack, in Santa Fe, where they live. Johnson said he understood that the American people would expect him to be a substance-free Commander-in-Chief. “As President, I will not indulge in anything,” Johnson vowed, as if he were J.F.K. promising not to take directions from the Pope. “I don’t think you want somebody answering the phone at two o’clock in the morning—that red phone—drunk, either. Better on the stoned side, but I don’t want to make that judgment.”
Johnson, who is sixty-three, tan, and fit, with spiky gray hair, has long been unrepentant about his use of marijuana. During his first campaign for governor, in 1994, he was asked to quantify his earlier use. “I came up with two and a half times a week,” he told me. Still, as governor, he earned plaudits from the right for being one of the more conservative governors. National Review praised him as the “New Mexico maverick” and as a “Reaganite antitax crusader,” who cut income-tax rates, slowed the growth of government, and eliminated the jobs of hundreds of state employees. During his two terms as governor, Johnson vetoed more than seven hundred bills passed by a Democratic legislature.
In 1999, after winning a second term, Johnson became the highest-ranking elected official in America to call for the full legalization of marijuana. His approval rating dropped into the twenties, and he returned to his agenda of lower taxes and less spending. He left office with an approval rating in the high fifties. Today, he is willing to make other concessions to the political mainstream. When we met, Johnson wore Nikes with a suit, his signature style since 2012. But, after a lively debate with his campaign advisers, he showed up for his CNN appearance wearing dress shoes.
There hasn’t been a serious challenge from a third-party Presidential candidate since 1992, when Ross Perot, the eccentric Texas billionaire, ran as an independent and bought hours of TV time to educate voters about the large federal budget deficit. Perot won entry into the Presidential debates and received nineteen per cent of the vote against Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. Bush blamed Perot for his loss, though the best analyses of the race concluded that Perot had drawn equal numbers of voters from Bush and Clinton.
This year, the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump has created an opportunity for Johnson to at least match Perot’s impressive showing. Last week, Republican delegates in the Never Trump movement attempted to change the rules for the Republican National Convention, in a failed effort to deny Trump the nomination. For anti-Trump conservatives still searching for an alternative, Johnson may be the only option. On the left, anti-Clinton Democrats, including some determined supporters of Bernie Sanders, would prefer a candidate who is more socially liberal and noninterventionist than Clinton.
“We have arguably the two most polarizing candidates,” Johnson told me. “Hillary has to go out and she has to appeal to this ‘everything’s free, government can accomplish anything, what can you give us’ constituency. She’s doling it out as fast as she can. Trump is appealing to this anti-abortion, anti-immigration, ‘bomb the hell out of them, lock them up, throw away the key’ constituency.”
Johnson is charming and more transparent than most politicians—sometimes to a fault—and has a knack for putting a happy face on the rougher edges of libertarianism. Weld has a shabby-genteel bearing and a boarding-school sarcasm that comes across as both appealing and arrogant. Together, Johnson and Weld represent the first Presidential ticket with two governors since 1948, when the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey, of New York, and Earl Warren, of California. One of the Johnson-Weld campaign slogans is “A Credible Alternative to ClinTrump.”
Johnson was born in Minot, North Dakota. His father was an Allstate insurance salesman, and his mother worked in accounting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His father, who had fallen in love with New Mexico during a trip there as a Boy Scout, moved the family to Albuquerque when Johnson was thirteen and worked as a public-school teacher. When Johnson was eighteen, he read a book—he has forgotten the title—about what it means to be a libertarian, and it changed his life. “It was a thirty-minute read,” he told me. “I have identified myself as a libertarian ever since.”
Johnson, who as a teen-ager earned money by doing odd jobs, founded a construction company, Big J Enterprises, in 1975, when he was a senior at the University of New Mexico. He married his college girlfriend, Dee Simms, and they had two children. In 1986, Big J became the facilities contractor for Intel in New Mexico, where the company had a major manufacturing plant. A few years earlier, Intel had introduced its 286 microchip, which became the dominant processor for personal computers. “They couldn’t make them fast enough, and I was in at the very start,” Johnson said. He became wealthy enough that he would be able to self-finance his first gubernatorial campaign.
By 1987, Johnson was overwhelmed by the success of his business. “I wrote down the ten worst times of my life and the ten best times in my life,” he told me. The best times “had to do with fitness.” The worst times “had to do with drinking or substance—I don’t want to say substance abuse, but just not getting enough rest, not being as healthy as I could be. So the epiphany was ‘Man, I’m going to be in the best shape of my life every day. Why not?’ ” Johnson does not think he was an alcoholic, but he decided to give up drinking. He is now a triathlete and a competitive bike racer, and has scaled the tallest mountain on every continent. “I could go climb Mt. Everest tomorrow,” he boasted.
After leaving office, Johnson got divorced and became involved in marijuana-legalization efforts. When he decided to enter this year’s Presidential race, he stepped down as C.E.O. of Cannabis Sativa, Inc., a marijuana-branding company that hopes to benefit as legalization spreads. “Gary is not at all involved with Cannabis Sativa, Inc., now,” James P. Gray, the company’s chairman, said, adding that Johnson still owns some stock. “But he does mention it occasionally in his interviews, and he believes in it.” Gray, a former superior-court judge in Orange County, California, was Johnson’s running mate in 2012. At the company, Johnson told me, he hired the person who developed the branding for a product line called hi. “Small ‘H,’ small ‘I’—really cool logo,” he said. He also contributed to the development of a strain-specific edible lozenge that he said “is as good a marijuana high that exists on the planet.” How did he know? “As C.E.O., I did some testing,” he said. “Nothing was better.”
“So, if someone wanted to try that strain, how would they acquire it?” I asked.
“Legally, they couldn’t,” Johnson said.
“What about illegally?”
“Well, I’d probably be able to connect you up illegally.”
“Third parties are like bees,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, in 1955. “Once they have stung, they die.” Third parties come buzzing to life when they seize upon an issue that the two major parties have ignored. If they gain enough popular support—the sting—one or both parties will adapt to the electorate’s demands, and co-opt the third party’s ideas. In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt broke away from the Republican Party to form the Progressive Party, which championed political reforms, women’s suffrage, and workers’ rights. Roosevelt won twenty-seven per cent of the vote, the best result of any third-party candidate in American history. The Democrats and the Republicans included most of the Progressives’ issues in their platforms, and the Party was largely defunct by the next Presidential election.
In 1948, Strom Thurmond, then the governor of South Carolina, left the Democratic Party to found the segregationist Dixiecrats. The voters, mostly Southern Democrats, who flocked to the Dixiecrats that year, giving it thirty-nine electoral votes, eventually joined the Republicans.
The sting of Ross Perot’s candidacy was felt even before the 1992 election was over, when both Clinton and Bush adopted his views on deficit reduction. In 1996, a year after Perot founded the Reform Party, he ran as its candidate, but he didn’t even qualify for the Presidential debates. By 2000, the Reform Party had no clear ideology, and had become an outlet for the aspirations of Donald Trump, Jesse Ventura, and Pat Buchanan, who won its nomination that year.
Unlike other parties that have come and gone, the Libertarians have had enough consistent support to maintain a national infrastructure. In 1992 and 1996, the Libertarian Party was on the ballot in all fifty states, and in each Presidential election since then its candidate has been on the ballot in more than forty states. Libertarians, who want less government interference in all aspects of life, have never been single-issue activists, but they serve as an ideological release valve for voters on the left and the right when the government becomes too interventionist at home or abroad.
In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, many leading Libertarians moved to the Republican Party as a way to advance their agenda. The brothers David and Charles Koch, who had previously tried to influence politics under the auspices of the Libertarian Party—David was the Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1980—became the most important donors to Republican causes and candidates. Ron Paul, who was the Libertarian Party’s Presidential candidate in 1988, ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012; his son Rand Paul left this year’s race in February.
Johnson endorsed Ron Paul in 2008, but in 2011, dismayed by the war on drugs, the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Barack Obama’s liberal fiscal record, he decided to run for President as a Republican. He encountered formidable resistance when he tried to attract the right-wing Republican electorate in early-primary states, especially when it came to social issues and immigration.
“Thirty per cent of Republican voters out there right now believe the scourge of the earth is Mexican immigration,” he told me. “You go to these Party events in New Hampshire and in Iowa, and they set the criteria for the entire nation. It’s profound. You can’t get beyond those two states, because you have to go out and appeal to anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-drugs, anti-immigration—and I’m crossways on all of those. I’d argue I’m the pragmatist in the room, but you can’t get past those groups, especially in those two states.” In December, 2011, Johnson left the Republican Party and found a home among the Libertarians, who awarded him the Party’s nomination. In the 2012 Presidential election, he won 1,275,971 votes, the Party’s largest total ever.
But it was in 2015 that Johnson saw, with the rise of Trump, an unprecedented opening for the Libertarian Party. “I think Trump alienates more than half of the Republicans, and he alienates them because there’s no sense of smaller government,” Johnson said. “Immigration, the wall, killing the families of Muslim terrorists. He said, ‘I’m going to bring back waterboarding or worse.’ ” Trump’s agenda, he said, “is fascism.”
Clinton’s troubles with Sanders also emboldened Johnson. He tells Sanders supporters to take an ideological quiz at the Web site ISideWith.com. “You get paired up with a Presidential candidate most in line with your views,” he said. “I side with myself the most, and then, amazingly, I side with Bernie next closest.” Polls so far show that Johnson actually takes more voters from Clinton than from Trump. “It’s about everything but economics,” Johnson said, ticking off the issues on which he and Sanders agree: “on legalizing marijuana, on ‘Let’s stop dropping bombs,’ crony capitalism.”
But to seriously exploit Trump’s and Clinton’s vulnerabilities Johnson needed a running mate with mainstream credibility. Johnson and Weld got to know each other in the nineties, when both were governors—two fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republicans governing blue states and sparring with Democratic legislatures. Weld, who once dove into the Charles River, wearing a T-shirt and khakis, to demonstrate how clean it had become, liked Johnson’s eccentric side. “I thought he was just so cool that he would do these giant slaloms after doing an Iron Man triathlon and ski five hundred feet in the air and then land in a pail of water,” Weld told me. “I mean, he is a serious daredevil.”
Weld won a second term in 1994, with seventy-one per cent of the vote. In 1996, he challenged John Kerry for his Senate seat. Weld lost, but the race became famous for a series of eight tough but high-minded debates that the two men staged across Massachusetts. That summer, during the campaign, Weld made a show of demanding that he be allowed to speak in favor of abortion rights at the Republican National Convention, a stunt that was popular in Massachusetts but which isolated him from the national Party.
Like Johnson, Weld found himself out of step with Republicans on numerous social issues. “I was in favor of needle exchanges, all the gay and lesbian stuff, medicinal marijuana,” Weld told me. “They were not typical positions.” In 1997, Bill Clinton nominated Weld to be the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and Weld resigned as governor to take the job. But Jesse Helms, a Republican senator from North Carolina, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, blocked the nomination. As Weld recalled it, Helms claimed that Weld was “soft on drugs and we couldn’t afford to have me in Mexico.”
In 2006, Weld launched a long-shot campaign for governor of New York, where he was born. He was endorsed by the state’s Libertarian Party but failed to secure the Republican nomination, and he returned to practicing law. Weld was living a comfortable but dull life in Boston when one of Johnson’s aides sent him an e-mail asking if he would consider being Johnson’s running mate. “Hell, yeah, I like Gary,” Weld replied. “I admired his run as a Libertarian last time. I was all in for Romney, but I always said to people, ‘Hey, if you feel like it, vote Libertarian—Johnson’s a good guy.’ ”
At the Libertarian Party convention, in Orlando, in May, convincing some of the more eccentric delegates that Weld should be on the ticket was almost as difficult as winning over Helms. In a video that became popular online, one heavyset attendee with a bushy beard and a tattoo danced across the stage and stripped down to a thong. “He was running for chairman of the Party, and so he was supposed to give a five-minute speech,” Weld said, “but instead he did a five-minute striptease, and he didn’t really have the figure for it.” Johnson added, “Didn’t hurt anybody, except maybe your sensibilities.”
Weld spent several years running the Criminal Division in the Justice Department during the Reagan Administration, and delegates asked him a series of hostile questions about his prosecutorial record. As Weld told me, much of what he did at Justice was not “calculated to warm the cockles of the Libertarian heart.” Other delegates objected to the fact that Weld’s wife’s great-uncle, Kermit Roosevelt, was the C.I.A. agent who led the American-backed coup in Iran, in 1953. “Kind of before my time,” Weld said, laughing.
On the first ballot, Weld received forty-nine per cent of the vote, and Johnson’s aides feared that he would lose. He won on the second, with just over fifty per cent. Johnson thinks that, without Weld on the ticket, the media wouldn’t be interested in his campaign. He told me, “My opinion, having done this now for two cycles, is: I think the national media really likes me and likes what I have to say. But, at the end of the day, ‘He’s a Libertarian,’ and that denotes some loose screws, maybe. But Bill Weld? No. I mean, what’s Bill Weld doing hitching his train to the Libertarian Party and to me? I think it gives us amazing credibility.”
For Weld, the decision was at least as much about Trump as it was about Johnson. Weld compared the Republican Party, in its crisis over Trump’s nomination, to the Whig Party in its final years. The Whig Party splintered in the mid-eighteen-fifties, Weld noted, and some former members drifted into the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. Like Trump’s rallies, Weld said, Know-Nothing rallies “had a lot of violence, they fomented a lot of conspiracy theories about people trying to overthrow the United States. They were nativists, they were—they called it racialist then, not racist. But they were everything that Mr. Trump’s overtones are today. And they became very powerful for a few short years, and then they disappeared.” Weld hopes that, by creating a split among conservatives, the Libertarian ticket can make it more likely that the same thing will happen to Trump.
late June, Johnson was in Pasadena, California, addressing attendees of Politicon, a self-described “unconventional political convention.” One booth in the convention center displayed original portraits of Donald Trump: there was a painting of the candidate naked, and one of his face made using the artist’s menstrual blood. Johnson gave the opening speech before a room of several hundred left-leaning political junkies and a small band of fervent Johnson fans, mostly young white men, wearing Libertarian Party paraphernalia. “Is this the craziest political election you’ve ever seen?” Johnson asked the crowd. “And you know how crazy it is? You might be looking at the next President of the United States!”
Johnson’s theory of politics is highly rational. He assumes that voters don’t need to know much more than his positions to make up their minds. In his stump speech, he goes through a long list of his stances on issues in the areas of fiscal matters, social concerns, and foreign policy. It’s the live equivalent of the ISideWith.com quiz. Johnson wants to raise the retirement age for Social Security and to limit Social Security benefits for the wealthy. He wants to get rid of the I.R.S. and replace most of the tax code with a single consumption tax. He wants to abolish the death penalty, expand vouchers for private school, and drastically pull back the American military from its commitments around the world. “The unintended consequence of when you put boots on the ground, when you drop bombs, when you fly drones and kill thousands of innocent people—this is resulting in a world less safe, not more safe,” he told the crowd.
Unlike Ron Paul and Rand Paul, who have been the most prominent libertarian voices in American politics in the past decade, Johnson emphasizes ideas on the left side of the libertarian spectrum. Johnson thinks that the Pauls were poor advocates for the libertarian cause. “Rand actually ran as a Republican,” Johnson said of the younger Paul’s failed campaign this year. “He was talking about building a fence across the border. He was a social conservative, and he was wearing it on his sleeve—build a fence, crack down on the illegal immigrants that are here. Man! And Ron did the same thing.”
Johnson’s full platform has the same problems that the Libertarians have always had: most voters don’t support reducing the size of government to the levels he calls for. He believes that the private sector could solve many of the problems with health-care costs by creating markets for medical procedures. “We want Stitches-R-Us,” he said. “We would have Gallbladders-R-Us. We would have advertised pricing with advertised outcomes.”
But Johnson isn’t reflexively against all government. He supports the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that policing polluters is a proper function of the government. As governor of New Mexico, he aggressively used the power of the state to force Molycorp, a large mining corporation, to clean up a contaminated site. He eventually allowed the E.P.A. to declare the area a Superfund site, turning the issue over to the federal government, which had more resources to go after the company. “The government exists to protect us from harm, and that pollution is harm,” Johnson said. “Libertarians would say, ‘You and I have the ability to sue Molycorp. We can bring them to bear from a private standpoint.’ But the reality? You can’t.”
After his speech, Johnson wandered around the convention greeting voters and conducted a round of interviews. One reporter asked him about the lack of diversity in the Libertarian Party, which, as some people remember from college dorm-room discussions, tends to attract a disproportionate number of young white males. Johnson said that there was no diversity problem, and that the Party would do better in nonwhite communities as he became better known. A few minutes later, an aide directed him to a room in the convention center that was named for Harriet Tubman. “Who’s Harriet Tubman?” Johnson asked. (After the aide reminded him who Tubman was, Johnson recalled that she will appear on a new twenty-dollar bill.)
No third-party candidate has won an electoral vote since George Wallace’s campaign as the candidate of the anti-civil-rights American Independent Party, in 1968. Wallace, who focussed on his base, in the South, did not try to win the election; rather, he wanted to win enough electoral votes to deny a majority to the Democratic and Republican candidates. According to the Constitution, if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes—two hundred and seventy—the contest is decided by the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation has a single vote. When pressed, Johnson conceded that this is his real strategy. His targets, aside from his home state of New Mexico, are states in the West and the Great Plains that have been Libertarian Party strongholds in the past: Utah, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, and the Dakotas.
“If it gets thrown to the House of Representatives and it goes beyond one ballot, I could be President,” Johnson said, smiling at the absurdity of the idea. “Because, if it goes beyond one ballot, Democrats are not going to cross over the line to change to Trump, and Republicans are not going to go over the line to support Clinton. They’re going to have to compromise, and I’d be the compromise.”
But Johnson has yet to convince some leading voices in the Never Trump movement that he’s a credible alternative. Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, said he thought that Weld should be the Presidential candidate. “Weld-Johnson would be a much stronger ticket, and would have a shot to get to fifteen per cent,” Kristol told me. “And Weld on the debate stage taking on Trump and Clinton could be formidable.” Mitt Romney, the most high-profile anti-Trump Republican, said something similar to CNN in June, but he added that he was open to backing Johnson. “If Bill Weld were at the top of the ticket, it would be very easy for me to vote for Bill Weld for President,” Romney said. “So I’ll get to know Gary Johnson better and see if he’s someone who I could end up voting for.” Tim Miller, a former spokesman for Jeb Bush who now works for an anti-Trump super pac, said of Johnson, “Picking Bill Weld was smart, but he needs to carry himself like someone who could seriously be President.” Still, Miller added that at this point he was inclined to vote for Johnson.
As Johnson and I finished talking in Pasadena, Nate Silver, who runs the data-journalism and election-forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, and a team of his reporters entered the Tubman room to interview Johnson. It was another sign of the political press taking the candidate seriously. “He’s in our model now,” Silver said. The computer calculations were giving Johnson a less than one-per-cent chance of victory, but that didn’t bother Johnson.
Johnson said he realized that the idea of him as President seems unfathomable now, but he compared it to a crusade that he started long ago and that also once seemed nuts. “It’s similar to the legalization of marijuana,” Johnson said, returning to the theme. “For those who wanted to implement the death penalty for marijuana, they don’t go from death penalty to legalizing. They go from death penalty to ‘O.K., let’s forget about the death penalty.’ So you move the needle. And right now we’re moving the needle.”