Minutes before Tuesday night’s presidential debate began, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate and former New Mexico governor, was shouting at a reporter in a conference room in the basement of Twitter’s New York City headquarters. Twitter had invited Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, to attend a debate watch party at the social network’s Manhattan offices.
Fantasies of getting stoned with Johnson while watching Trump and Clinton face off on stage were dashed when he and Weld arrived and set up shop in a private room.
Johnson, who wore a navy blazer, light blue jeans, and his trademark black Nike sneakers, invited reporters into the inner sanctum for a few minutes before the debate began.
He was instantly irate when a reporter mentioned his now-infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe on MSNBC earlier this month.
“I’m tired of innocent people being killed in these countries!” he cried, speaking broadly at first. “Hillary Clinton dots the i’s and crosses the t’s on all of the names and everything associated with this, but as a result we have the foreign policy that we have right now that—I have to tell you—I think is horrible. Horrible!”
There was an uncomfortably long pause: This was not the warm, affable Johnson we know, the 63-year-old, mountain-climbing triathlete and first major national politician to favor legalizing marijuana. You half expected him to break the silence with a characteristically goofy grin—his own “gotcha” moment.
Instead, Johnson became more enraged. Certainly this was no act, but he wanted to make a point that he’d be just as bullish if the issue came up in a debate.
“I would be angry that people would be calling me out on the names of geographic locations, names of foreign leaders when the underlying policy has thousands of people dying! And that is unacceptable. It angers me to no end!”
Johnson was on his feet, hovering over a small plate of food that included a single deviled egg and several cauliflower stalks, while Weld sat next to him with one leg crossed over the other. He wore a pinstripe suit and a thin smile, looking at once amused and horrified. It’s no secret that the two balance each other out, though Weld’s calmly authoritative, even aloof demeanor has been deemed more presidential than Johnson’s eccentric charm.
When the same reporter pointed out that there’s more support for Johnson to be included in the debates than there is for Johnson to be president, the candidate deflected to Clinton and Trump’s unpopularity.
“That has everything to do with the fact that both of them are vilified!” he fired back, beginning to lose the thread of his argument. “Sixty percent of Americans view them negatively.”
Weld, whose ruddy face now looked pinker than usual, stepped in to clarify and smooth Johnson’s rough edges. What the governor meant to say, he explained, was that the Johnson-Weld ticket doesn’t have as much support in general because not enough people know about the Libertarian candidates.
“If we have 50 percent recognition instead of 30 percent, we’ll go to 25 percent in ballot preference because Gary doesn’t seem to have the negatives that the two major-party candidates seem to have,” Weld, 71, told reporters.
Indeed, an hour outside of Manhattan at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, the two most disliked presidential candidates in polling history were about to go onstage without Johnson.
As Johnson likes to point out, Ross Perot was polling lower than him, around 8 percent, ahead of the debates in 1992 when he was invited into the ring with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Johnson was at 8.6 percent two days after the Commission on Presidential Debates ruled him out of the first round, according to RealClearPolitics’ most recent roundup of national polls. (The fact that Perot was leading the race earlier in the election cycle likely factored into his participation).
After months of hovering around 9 percent (a Pew poll in mid-August found him as high as 10 percent), Johnson’s numbers have begun to decline in a slew of more recent polls. Crunching the numbers on Monday, Reason.com linked the drop to a shrinking gap between Trump and Clinton, prompting third-party voters to abandon Johnson in a panicked attempt to thumb the scale in two-party proceedings.
Johnson’s “Aleppo” moment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in early September generated plenty of media buzz, but it didn’t move the needle on the polls much. (Johnson subsequently told The Daily Beast he was “thinking about an acronym, not the Syrian conflict.”)
Morning Joe contributor Mike Barnicle had no choice but to awkwardly inform Johnson on national television that Aleppo was not an acronym but the city at the center of Syria’s refugee crisis. Barnicle then went on to defend the candidate’s ignorance in a Daily Beast column, arguing that neither Trump nor Clinton have been asked about Aleppo recently.
Still, even Johnson thought his Aleppo gaffe might sink his campaign. Appearing on The View a few hours after Morning Joe, he said there was “no excuse” for it—a decidedly more conciliatory tack than the one he took at Monday’s debate watch party.
But anti-war, third-party voters have mostly stuck with the candidate who has been consistently non-interventionist, if occasionally slow on the uptake—especially given the other options: Hillary Clinton’s pro-military intervention record includes voting for the Iraq War and pushing to bomb Libya, and Trump who can hardly wait to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.”
The Commission on Presidential Debates mandates that candidates average at least 15 percent in five major national polls to qualify for the debates, and Johnson has argued that he could still make it to the third round. On Monday night, Weld made the case to reporters at Twitter’s offices that the social-media network could help them get there.
“This really is the year of social media,” he said. “It’s not a year where bought-and-paid-for advertising in the last week of the campaign is going to swing the election. Because people will tune that out.”
Johnson sounded a negative note once again, remarking that the Clinton campaign is “spending $18 million right now to discredit us.” Despite his own campaign’s strong fundraising, including $5 million in the month of August alone (75 percent of which came from small donations), Johnson stressed that Clinton had spent more money discrediting him than he and Weld will end up using to run their entire campaign.
When the same reporter Johnson shouted at earlier asked him and Weld about being “spoiler candidates,” drawing votes away from Trump and Clinton (recent polls have shown Johnson pulling slightly more votes from Clinton, in part because of his popularity among libertarian-leaning liberals), Johnson cut her off before she could finish.
“Why do you even say that?” he asked, shouting again. “We’re giving people a chance to vote for something [they believe in] as opposed to the lesser of two evils! You want to waste your vote on Hillary or Trump? Go right ahead. We’re not spoilers we’re the first vote!”
This time the governor was cut off by one of his aides, who asked for a last question from the small crowd, but Johnson continued antagonizing: “So I guess what you’re saying is that we should drop out? Is that what you’re saying? Is that your editorial here? That we should drop out?”
Weld stepped in to pacify the situation once more.
“Another way of putting it is that this is a year when voters really have to think for themselves,” he said, meaning that educated voters will make the best decision. If they do think for themselves, they’ll recognize that Johnson and Weld encompass the broad “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” sweet spot, representative of roughly 60 percent of the United States, according to Weld. “In business terms, that’s a pretty good addressable market, so it’s a question of getting that story out there.
“We’d love to be on the stage tonight but, failing that, we’re very grateful for the chance to tell our story through this medium,” Weld concluded with a gracious nod to their hosts that evening.
Down the hall, 50 or so people had gathered in a coffee shop-like setting outfitted with the kind of trendy décor ubiquitous at hip restaurants: filament lightbulbs, tufted brown leather couches, hashtag-shaped marquee lights, and gold-and-black, boudoir-ish wallpaper.
They filled their plates with elegantly displayed comfort food like chicken wings, tomato soup, grilled cheese, and cauliflower mac ‘n’ cheese.
There was an overwhelming amount of support for Clinton in the crowd. They whooped and cheered her gleeful mocking of Trump, and heckled moderator Lester Holt for allowing the former reality-TV star to talk over the former secretary of State—and, on several occasions, over Holt himself.
Johnson and Weld, meanwhile, live-tweeted their own frustrations from the other room, with Johnson sounding like the stereotype of a cranky libertartarian. “@realDonaldTrump says @Hillary Clinton is the scourge of the earth and vice versa,” he wrote, then: “I’m finding that I’m in agreement with both of them at the moment.”
He also neatly summarized his policies, like lowering income taxes, ending the war on drugs, and pushing free trade.
The crowd cleared out quickly at the end of the debate, with only one or two guests lingering in hopes of talking to Johnson (one managed to briefly shake his hand). Reporters lingered too, but were told that Johnson was done giving interviews and had had a long day.
Indeed, that much was clear before the debate began.