Gary Johnson recently held a town-hall meeting in Concord, N.H., and not one voter showed up. When I told him a local political professional had judged that reason enough to dismiss him as a serious presidential candidate, the former New Mexico governor replied, “That’s legitimate.”
Dear reader, I nearly dropped the phone—and not for the first or last time during our conversation. “I’m different,” Johnson told me. “I’m different than anybody else that you’ve ever talked to in politics.” No argument there, and it’s not just because he nearly missed the filing deadline for his must-win state of New Hampshire, or because he wants to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana. For cost-benefit reasons, of course.
Johnson and former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, with his populist critiques of corporate influence and fellow politicians, are two of the most interesting people running for the Republican nomination. They have traditional résumés, the kind that often translate into attention and traction, and mainstream GOP ideas on taxes and the size of government. (Roemer says he released his flat-tax proposal three months ago.) Johnson built a business before winning two terms as governor; Roemer has been a banker and a congressman as well as a governor.
The conventional wisdom is that governors have a leg up in presidential races. They have been deciders, after all, and they aren’t dragging around histories of controversial votes. This year, however, has been challenging for governors. Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, and now Herman Cain have topped the polls and made numerous high-profile appearances on national TV. Meanwhile, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman can’t catch a break. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has already been driven from the race. Texas Gov. Rick Perry—who once led the field—is trying to recover from a collapse. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is having trouble closing the deal. And most of America doesn’t know that Johnson and Roemer are running. They can’t even get into the debates.
True, they are decidedly offbeat, but how would one describe Ron Paul?
Johnson was invited to two of eight debates so far. Roemer hasn’t been in any, and told me he’s quite proud of his low-single-digit standing in some polls, given his exclusion from the high-octane events. “I’d be embarrassed if I were some of these guys,” he said. “Some of them have been in seven debates, and they are at 3 percent.”
Roemer has offered to appear in place of Perry if the Texan makes good on his hint that he may skip some of the dozen or so remaining debates after the next one, on Nov. 9. In the meantime Roemer will continue to tweet answers to debate questions before the candidates onstage respond. “I’ve watched every one of them. Is that sad?” he told me, laughing. “It might be this is an election where experience counts against you. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe I have too much experience.”
Job loss to China and the corrupting influence of special-interest money on government are Roemer’s core issues, and he said the debates rarely if ever touch on them. “Have you heard a single question about where do you get your money, Mitt Romney, and what obligations have you made because of it? You have never heard that question. They won’t ask it. I will,” Roemer said, probably not helping his quest to participate. “Rick Perry has seven super-PACs,” he added. “Give me a break.”
The GOP debates have already been entertaining, unpredictable, and discomfiting for the candidates. Imagine the new dynamic if Roemer and Johnson were invited. They’d also bring to three, counting Paul, the number of Occupy Wall Street sympathizers onstage. Johnson and Roemer even visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan, unlike President Obama and the other Republican candidates. Roemer, an extroverted veteran pol, announced his excursion, talked with the protesters, earned points for coming, and parlayed the visit into exposure on national television. “The play that I got was surprisingly broad. I got a lot of interviews because of the three hours I spent at Occupy Wall Street,” he said.
Johnson, who isn’t camera-ready and often bristles at the whole idea of politics, made an unannounced visit for his “own knowledge” and was upset to find people in Johnson T-shirts giving out his campaign literature. “I hate political pandering. I didn’t want to be a political panderer,” he said. He shares the view of most of the protesters that “this is a country that is unfair ... A whole bunch of people are outraged about inequity in this country, and it has a basis in politicians being bought.”
Johnson doesn’t always shun publicity. He wanted an audience at his town hall in Concord but drew no one due to a robo-call mixup. He tried to attract some attention with a 500-mile bike ride across New Hampshire. “That was seven days’ worth of events that were publicized,” he said, but hardly anyone came. It was supposed to signify that “this is different and I’m different,” he said, but maybe it was viewed instead as “some circus act that’s not to be taken seriously.”
For Johnson, the debate debacle has been an awakening. ”I always thought American politics was fair, but I’m finding out that it’s not,” he told me. He has tweeted a couple of debates but finds them “painful to watch … I never expected to not have a seat at the debate table.” He has asked the Republican National Committee to help him get that seat.
The criteria for invitations to debate have evolved. Roemer says the sponsors keep raising the bar—from being an official candidate to drawing 1 percent in national polls to drawing 2 percent. For the Oct. 11 economics debate in Hanover, N.H., CNN and Dartmouth imposed two more requirements: candidates had to have raised $500,000 by June 30 and participated in at least three earlier debates. That disqualified both Roemer and Johnson.
The unkindest cut, the pair say, is that they’ve been dropped from most polling—so how are they ever going to qualify for future debates?
When Roemer and Johnson are included in polls, they don’t do that differently from Huntsman, Bachmann, and Rick Santorum, all regular debaters. The most recent Fox News survey, for instance, puts Roemer, Johnson, and Huntsman at zero and the other two at 3 percent. In August, Johnson and Roemer were at 2 percent each in a national McClatchy-Marist poll—while Huntsman was at 1 percent.
In recent American Research Group polls of the first four battleground states, support for Johnson was undetectable. But Roemer was at 1 percent in Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire. That put him in a three-way tie with Santorum and Huntsman in Florida, tied with Huntsman in Iowa, and only slightly behind Santorum’s 2 percent in Iowa and New Hampshire.
It’s no accident that Roemer, Johnson, and long-shot Huntsman all view New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary as do or die. Patrick Buchanan mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and bested Bob Dole in the 1996 primary. State Republicans went on to give John McCain a 19-point victory over George W. Bush in 2000, when McCain was a maverick with an Occupy Wall Street–style message of curbing special-interest influence in Washington.
“New Hampshire has the ability to do the unconventional,” Roemer said. He and Johnson can only hope there’s still time for them to get on the radar.