Thoughts on Gary Johnson's Des Moines rally and Iowa prospects

Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson made his first Iowa campaign stop this year over the holiday weekend. His September 3 rally in Des Moines attracted hundreds of people, making it possibly the largest Libertarian event in Iowa history. You can watch his full speech at C-SPAN or Caffeinated Thoughts.

Johnson will qualify for the ballot in all 50 states and is consistently polling far better than the Green Party’s Jill Stein, the only other minor-party candidate routinely included in public opinion surveys. I continue to hear the Libertarian’s radio ads on various Des Moines-based stations and have seen pro-Johnson television commercials by the Purple PAC on some cable networks.

The four most recent Iowa polls measured Johnson’s support at 8 percent (Emerson College), 12 percent (Quinnipiac), 6 percent (Suffolk), and 12 percent (Marist). Polls have historically overstated support for third-party candidates. Nevertheless, if the competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump remains very close here, even a 2-3 percent showing for Johnson could determine who wins Iowa’s six electoral votes.

Though I wasn’t able to attend Saturday’s rally, listening to Johnson’s stump speech reinforced my view that he is on track to outperform all previous Libertarian presidential candidates in Iowa by a considerable margin.

Equipped with little more than the Libertarian Party of Iowa’s website and a couple of Facebook pages, Johnson’s supporters produced a larger audience for their standard-bearer than Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence had in Cedar Rapids a couple of weeks ago.

The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich wrote that about 400 people came to hear Johnson at Grand View University. Conservative blogger Shane Vander Hart judged the crowd to be more than 600 strong. John George, the Libertarian candidate in Iowa Senate district 38, said via e-mail that staff stopped counting attendees at around 850 people. George estimated that the final number may have exceeded 1,200 and argued that the turnout was remarkable for an event put together in six days and taking place on a day when Iowa, Iowa State, and the University of Northern Iowa all had football games.

About 30 Libertarian candidates for state or county offices stood on stage behind the podium. Activist Amy Garmoe took these pictures (used with permission):

Amy Garmoe photo of Johnson rally photo B__GNydV_zps5tnfhz50.jpg

Amy Garmoe photo of Johnson rally photo _CWVWwxl.jpg-large_zpskaeoc1cb.jpeg

What you might call Johnson’s “elevator speech” came near the beginning of his remarks. After noting that former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld was widely considered the “smartest governor” among his peers, Johnson described the team of “Brainy Bill and Honest Gary” as “two former Republican governors that served two terms, each in heavily Democrat states, fiscally conservative […] socially inclusive. I think I have just described the majority of Americans in this country.”

Without question, nominating Weld for vice president cemented this year’s Libertarian ticket as the most credible the party has fielded in its 44-year history. The #teamgov branding in social media strikes me as a smart way to underscore Johnson’s and Weld’s governing experience, rare among third-party candidates.

Why Johnson and Weld are former Republicans becomes clear as the Libertarian outlines his approach to major national issues.


Plenty of Johnson’s lines would inspire cheers at a Democratic rally: celebrating marriage equality, legalizing marijuana, welcoming immigrants, adopting criminal justice reform, abolishing the death penalty. Yet for each idea that sounds sensible to a progressive ear, Johnson advocates an equally terrible proposal: raising the retirement age, turning Medicare and Medicaid into block-grant programs devolved to the states, replacing the federal income tax and corporate taxes with a national consumption tax.

No doubt conservative activists feel the same in reverse, cringing when the Libertarian nominee calls for cutting the military budget or letting abortion be up to a pregnant woman, but nodding when he talks about school choice, eliminating the Federal Department of Education, or a “free market approach” to health care:

Johnson told the crowd the model of the future is “Uber Everything,” especially when it comes to health care.

“… The middle man is eliminated to allow you, as the provider of goods and services, to directly deliver those services to an end user who will pay less for it,” Johnson said. “We would have insurance to cover ourselves from catastrophic injury and illness. But we would pay as you go, in a system that is very competitive. You’d have advertised pricing and advertised outcomes. You’d have ‘Stitches R Us’ and ‘X-rays R Us.’ Right now the Affordable Care Act is a tax.”

Tens of millions of families would never be able to pay as they go for doctor’s visits. The likely result of an “Uber” health care system would be fewer people getting preventive care like routine physicals and screenings for serious illness.

To his credit, Johnson’s not afraid to suggest unpopular ideas. Almost any politician from either party could talk about cutting the deficit. But Johnson didn’t settle for promising to submit a balanced budget during his first 100 days. He advocated big changes to entitlement programs (around the 10:30 mark).

My generation has screwed it up for those that are young, and we’ve got to fix it. And to balance the federal budget, that is about the future. That is about dealing with the entitlements: Medicaid and Medicare. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton say they’re going to do anything regarding either of them, other than Hillary saying that she’s going to expand them. But the only way to prevent this Medicare and Medicaid in my opinion is to devolve those functions to the states. Fifty laboratories of innovation and best practice, where there would be fabulous innovation that would get emulated.

Side note: twenty years after welfare reform gave states more flexibility in how they use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families dollars, data on outcomes don’t inspire confidence that Americans would be better off under block-granted Medicare and Medicaid.

After describing his plan for Medicare and Medicaid, Johnson stomped all over the famous “third rail” of American politics, floating means-testing for Social Security benefits and increasing the retirement age. Then, as if determined to match every Democrat’s nightmare with an equally appalling scenario for traditional Republicans, he immediately added, “You can’t cut the federal government by 20 percent if you’re not going to cut the military by 20 percent.” That line prompted applause and cheers. Johnson went on:

We need to have an invincible national defense. We have to maintain military superiority. But the Pentagon itself through the BRAC Commission in the mid-90s advocated that 25 percent of U.S. bases could be closed. But there has not been the political will to do that. […] And so when it comes to the military, why is it that we always add and add, and we never re-evaluate, because there is that much excess in the federal government.

Johnson would scrap some federal agencies entirely. Getting the axe along with the Department of Education would be the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which in Johnson’s view has “completely outlived its usefulness,” and maybe also the Commerce Department, which he associated with “crony capitalism.”

Foreign policy and the national security apparatus don’t figure as prominently in Johnson’s stump speech as they did for former Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, who represented the GOP’s libertarian wing. The Johnson/Weld website criticizes the government “snooping into our private lives without a warrant.” In Des Moines, Johnson questioned whether we need a Homeland Security department (couldn’t the FBI handle those tasks?) and said the U.S. should not aspire to be “the world’s policeman,” adding that “when we involve ourselves in regime change, it results in a less safe world.”

For me, the most interesting remarks started around 24 and a half minutes into the speech. The crowd loudly applauded Johnson’s statement for marriage equality. But the candidate received only scattered claps when he asked rhetorically, “How can there be a more difficult decision in anyone’s life other than abortion? […] I’m talking about the woman involved and her decision-making. But who but that woman involved should be making that choice, other than the woman involved?”

Johnson quickly segued to “Let’s legalize marijuana,” drawing loud cheers and applause. His next comments on criminal justice reform were also well-received by the overwhelmingly white audience:

There are tens of millions of Americans who are convicted felons, that but for our drug laws would otherwise be tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, and I refuse to believe that we are any less law-abiding in this country. But it has to do with our drug laws, it has to do with mandatory minimums. The main category of prisoner in federal prison today is the individual who has sold small amounts of drugs on numerous occasions and been caught. Let’s bring an end to the war on drugs. (cheers, applause) Let’s first and foremost recognize drugs as a health problem, not a criminal justice problem. (cheers, applause)

Let me say this: all lives matter. OK? All lives matter. But black lives matter, and here’s why: blacks are being shot at six times the rate than if you are white. If you are of color, there’s a four times more likelihood that if you are arrested, you’re going to end up in jail than if you are white. We’ve had our heads in the sand over this issue, and I count myself in as the first one to have my head in the sand over this issue. We have to come to terms with this. We have to recognize that there is discrimination that exists, and we have to end this discrimination in our country. (cheers, applause)

The biggest question any minor-party candidate needs to answer is why voters should support someone with almost no chance of winning the election. One of the loudest ovations came when Johnson answered that question near the end of his speech:

The possibility exists to run the table on this elections, and for all the right reasons. You have to hear it all the time: “You’re going to waste your vote?” The comeback immediately is, “Wasting your vote is voting for somebody you don’t believe in.” That’s wasting your vote.


As the Libertarian nominee in 2012, Johnson received about 1.2 percent of the national vote and a bit less than that in Iowa. By launching radio ads in August and holding rallies around the country, Johnson hopes to boost his poll numbers to the 15 percent level he needs in order to be included in the three presidential debates. He acknowledged during his Des Moines speech and in multiple media interviews here that he can’t “run the table” if he isn’t included in the presidential debates. (The latest USA Today national poll by Suffolk University found that 76 percent of respondents support letting Johnson and Stein on the debate stage.)

The Des Moines Register’s Joey Aguirre reported that Johnson has changed his 2012 approach to campaigning in other ways too:

“In retrospect, 90 percent of what I did was wasted time,” Johnson told the Register. “That was like, I must have spent 30 straight days on internet radio, when you add it all up. And internet radio, there’s exceptions to everything, but I envisioned a 40-year-old in his basement with the only other people listening were his parents, the next floor up. And then showing up to events where instead of 500 people, there were nine people.”

To go with in-person events, Johnson has a growing online presence.

“Right now there’s an insatiable appetite for earned media,” Johnson explained. “Right now we can go to a rally and have 400 enthusiastic people but within two hours, 300,000 people have viewed it on Facebook Live. That’s a whole different world.”

Judging by photographs published by the Des Moines Register, as well as pictures attendees posted later on social media, the Grand View crowd was relatively young. A Pew Center national survey conducted in mid-August found,

Gary Johnson is currently backed by 10% of all registered voters in a four-way race. When asked their preference in a two-way race, Johnson backers split evenly: 43% say they would support Clinton in a two-way contest, while 42% would favor Trump.

Johnson’s supporters are younger on average than voters who back either Clinton or Trump. Nearly a third (32%) of Johnson’s supporters in the four-way contest are younger than 30. This is roughly double the share of Clinton (15%) or Trump supporters (12%) who are younger than 30. Only 29% of Johnson backers are 50 or older, compared with 50% of Clinton supporters and 62% of Trump voters.

Giovanni Russonello reported for the New York Times that “the Pew survey shows Mr. Johnson polling at just 4 percent among voters 65 and older. He is doing equally poorly among those who describe themselves as very conservative.” My hunch: Johnson’s and Weld’s pro-choice stance on abortion is and will continue be the largest obstacle to Libertarians winning the votes of Iowa’s #NeverTrump Republicans, many of whom caucused for Ted Cruz.

After attending Johnson’s rally and interviewing him, Obradovich discussed the Libertarian’s strategy in her latest column:

He says he’s making a splash on social media that will help him attract those voters. A recent rally in Milwaukee, in said, which attracted about 1,200 people, had over 300,000 views on Facebook Live within two hours of the event. “And so you’re doing a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, but guess what? The whole country is watching those rallies.” […]

He said he hopes libertarians will vote for him, but he’s also working to attract independents.

“Fifty percent of everyone going to register to vote right now is independent. And independent means, look, I’m going to look at the candidate. I don’t care about the parties,” he said. “… That’s where the opportunity exists to run the table.”

The Pew Center’s memo on its latest national survey found, “A majority of those who support Johnson are independents (62%) and they are divided roughly evenly between those who lean toward the Republican Party (28%) and the Democratic Party (24%), while 14% decline to lean toward either party.”

Democrats including myself have long assumed Johnson would draw more support from GOP-leaning voters than from those who would otherwise back Clinton in a two-way race against Trump. It might be time to question that belief. Selzer & Co usually conducts a poll for the Des Moines Register in mid-September of election years. I hope that survey will shed more light on who Johnson’s Iowa supporters are.


Over the weekend, Johnson picked up his first major newspaper endorsement, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia. The editors said Johnson “possesses substantial executive experience in both the private and the public sectors” and praised him as “a man of good integrity, apparently normal ego and sound ideas.”

Johnson’s clear and consistent support for limited government, free enterprise, social tolerance and individual freedom appeals to our own philosophical leanings. […]

But our final decision to endorse the Johnson/Weld ticket, and to do so with great confidence and enthusiasm, came only after Johnson met with the editorial board last Monday morning. We found him to be knowledgeable but unscripted, reasonable and good-humored, self-assured but free from arrogance, willing and able to address every question, consistent in his beliefs without being dogmatic, even-tempered, curious — and in all respects optimistically, realistically presidential.

Before settling on Johnson, the Richmond Times-Dispatch had endorsed every GOP presidential nominee from Ronald Reagan in 1980 through Mitt Romney in 2012.

In 2012, Johnson received only one daily and one weekly newspaper endorsement across the country. That number should greatly increase this year, since Clinton and Trump are more disliked than past major-party nominees.

Johnson could be an attractive option for some Iowa newspapers with a long history of endorsing Republicans at the top of the ticket, including the Sioux City Journal and Cedar Rapids Gazette, and perhaps also the Quad-City Times, which surprisingly endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 but reverted to form by backing Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump offends the sensibilities of many establishment conservatives, with his ignorance about world affairs, continual lies, and reliance on bigoted hate speech–or in the more delicate phrasing preferred in news analysis pieces: “divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery.”

Johnson has outlined more detailed policy positions than has Trump. He can speak intelligently about obscure issues like ending civil asset forfeiture or eminent domain abuse. He favors “free markets” without the “crony capitalism” that happens when “government [gets] involved, picking winners and losers.”

In contrast to the GOP nominee’s simplistic way of speaking, Johnson offers a nuanced approach to some hot-button topics. He told the Des Moines crowd, “I absolutely support the Second Amendment to the Constitution,” then called for a debate on how to keep firearms “out of the hands of the mentally ill” and “would-be terrorists.” He spoke thoughtfully about why he had changed his position on the death penalty.

Reproductive rights are highly salient for social conservatives in the Iowa GOP, but Johnson’s stand on abortion is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for business-oriented Republicans like many newspaper publishers.

Today the Dallas Morning News editorial board declared in a headline, “Donald Trump is no Republican.” The kicker: “Donald Trump is not qualified to serve as president and does not deserve your vote.” I expect similar editorials to appear in at least a few conservative Iowa newspapers, and some will go a step further than Dallas Morning News to make a case for Johnson.

Few people consciously take their cue from editorial writers, so I wouldn’t want to overstate the significance of newspaper endorsements. That said, editorials going against expectations can generate substantial free media coverage. For a long-shot contender like Johnson, backing from a prominent newspaper would send a strong signal to undecided voters: this guy is worth your serious consideration.

Any comments about the Libertarian ticket or presidential race are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Iowa candidates for down-ticket offices should take Harry Enten’s advice and appeal explicitly to supporters of Johnson and Stein for president. You should click through to read that whole post, but here’s a particularly important observation based on Enten’s review of data from Morning Consult’s national tracking poll during the first three weeks of August. I would guess that the logic applies to state legislative races as well as to Congressional campaigns:

Johnson’s voters are very slightly more favorably disposed toward Republicans. Stein’s voters are overwhelmingly more favorable toward Democrats. If these voters shun the two major parties at the top of the ticket but choose between the two in down-ballot races, they could help Democrats in congressional races.

When respondents were asked which party’s candidate they would back in their district’s U.S. House race, only 53 percent of Johnson backers said the Republican; 46 percent said they would vote for the Democrat. (They were not offered the option of a third-party candidate.)1 That’s a bit surprising — I would guess that a Libertarian candidate would draw support disproportionately from the GOP. But the small Republican edge among Johnson supporters means that, as a group, they would barely affect down-ballot races if they voted for a major-party nominee. Considering that 9 percent of all voters in the Morning Consult data said they were supporting Johnson for president, the 7-point edge in the U.S. House question means that Johnson voters are adding a little less than two-thirds of a percentage point of support to the Republican margin in the national House vote.

Stein supporters, meanwhile, overwhelmingly favor Democratic House candidates (not surprisingly). Democrats win the House ballot among Stein voters 74 percent to 25 percent. That nearly 50-point margin means that although just 4 percent of all voters are backing Stein, they add 2 percentage points to the aggregate Democratic margin in House races.

Adding together the Johnson and Stein voters creates a group that is slightly more Democratic-leaning than the electorate as a whole. By an 11-point margin, these third-party voters prefer the Democratic candidate for Congress.2 Among Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton voters only, Democrats lead the aggregate House vote by 7 points. If Johnson and Stein supporters vote for a major-party candidate for the U.S. House, the Democrats’ overall margin would grow by about 1 percentage point relative to where it would be if they favored independent candidates in down-ballot races too.

UPDATE: I didn’t realize that Christopher Peters, the Republican nominee in Iowa’s second Congressional district, attended the Johnson rally in Des Moines. Peters ran for the Iowa Senate in 2010 as a Libertarian. James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette that Peters says he was taking “full advantage” of the chance to see “a wide range of presidential candidates.” His campaign spokesperson Adam Sullivan said Peters has attended Democratic events before, and while he is “sympathetic to the Libertarian message, he has no plans to endorse Gary Johnson.”

The Libertarian Party did not nominate a candidate in IA-02 this year.

Speaking at a Ray Society event at Drake University on September 6, WHO-TV’s political director and anchor Dave Price commented that over ten years of the station running “cast your kernel” straw polls during the Iowa State Fair, he’s never heard so many people complain about the lack of a third option as he did this year.

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