Gary Johnson, the 63-year-old Libertarian Party nominee for president, is taking a brisk walk through a packed Times Square. Not that the crowds impede Johnson, who once climbed Mount Everest with a broken leg. “I knew my leg was broken before I started, but it was healing, so I went ahead,” says the candidate, who, in addition to ascending the highest peak in all seven continents, completed the 26.2-mile “Bataan Memorial Death March” across the White Sands Missile Range in combat boots. The Times Square tourist gauntlet is not without its challenges, however, especially when a phalanx of furry Elmos converge like a scrum of shag rugs. Tip bags in hand, they have apparently mistaken the candidate for one more rube out-of-towner.
“Beat it. That’s Gary Johnson. He’s running for president,” shouts a man in the uniform of the Gray Line tour-bus company, shooing the Elmos away. Johnson shakes hands with the Gray Line man as a massive digital billboard featuring bikini-clad models frolicking in the surf plays above his head. The candidate, who lives in the ex-hippie mecca of Taos because he “loves the skiing,” pauses to consider this moment in time and space. He isn’t exactly a nobody, after all: He built his own multimillion-dollar construction business and ran for New Mexico governor without previous political experience (using his own money) and won, twice. Now he’ll be on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, just like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Regardless, getting recognized at the Crossroads of the World, that’s “something,” Johnson says.
At the start of this election cycle it seemed this might be the Libertarian year. When Rand Paul, Republican senator of Kentucky, son of longtime movement patriarch Ron, did his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington thing last spring, staging a ten-and-a-half-hour filibuster against the Patriot Act, Libertarians rejoiced. Finally, they thought, their small-government–individual-social-responsibility–low-to-no-tax version of American freedom would get a fair hearing. But Rand turned out to be more Bambi in the fog lights of the Trump 18-wheeler, dropping out of the GOP primary fight in February. So, after a Memorial Day weekend convention that featured six candidates being vetted on matters like whether being forced to carry a driver’s license was an intolerable example of federal overreach, Johnson emerged as the Libertarian Party standard-bearer.
Johnson had also been the choice in 2012, when he attracted less than one percent of the electorate (or, more positively spun, 1.3 million votes). But this year, already the looniest election cycle since the Bull-Moosery of 1912, things will be different, Johnson tells me as we stride past the McDonald’s on 42nd Street. For one thing, he’s running with Bill Weld, another former two-term Republican governor. Weld isn’t exactly the popular choice of the party’s base — he hadn’t even called for the abolition of the IRS, a virtual Libertarian litmus test — but “purity” isn’t his main concern this time around, Johnson explains. His previous running mate, former Orange County judge James P. Gray, got “exactly no national coverage.”
It is all about the numbers, Johnson says. According to the rules, which he contends are rigged to favor the two big parties, he needs to poll at least 15 percent of prospective voters to be included in the upcoming presidential debates. A recent Fox News poll has him surging at 12 percent, suggesting that 15 might actually be possible. Nearly 50 percent of voters are registered Independent, “which means they’re looking for another voice,” Johnson says. It is his position that he can do “real damage” should he manage to get on the same stage as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “There are 30 million Libertarian voters out there right now, except they don’t know it yet. It is my job to make them recognize that fact.”
As one of these potential 30 million, I wondered what Johnson could do to get me in touch with my inner Libertarian. He was already off to a great start, since as governor he’d been, as he likes to say, “the highest-ranking American elected official to call for the legalization of marijuana.” Johnson has remained admirably faithful to the cause; after a bad paragliding fall, he’d learned for himself the virtues of medical marijuana. A believer in the “physical and psychic” benefits of the vegetable mind of the planet, Johnson became the CEO of Cannabis Sativa, Inc., in 2014 because he “wanted to change the world.” Plus, there are many Libertarian platform points most sentient voters would likely support: the battle to defend the First Amendment in our Matrix-like tech age, the opposition to xenophobic immigration legislation, reluctance to charge into overseas military adventures.
But it’s hard to tell whether Johnson is the man to plead the party’s case. However swashbuckling he may be on a mountainside, he isn’t all that thrilling as a campaigner. Halfway into our trek through Times Square, I already had two-thirds of his talking points memorized. His only spate of internet virality so far came when he called Trump “a pussy,” a charge he continues to apologize for.
Is this enough to win over Republicans who can’t stomach prostrating themselves before the dean of Trump University or to convert the die-hard Bernie Bros? To shake the notion that the Libertarian Party bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a secular prosperity-gospel club for Robert Heinlein–reading white alpha males, with a couple of weekend drum circles thrown in?
I lay out a scenario. “Suppose I’m a Trump voter. I used to have a good job in an industry that got closed down. I got a wife, three kids, a house underwater. Everything I expected about this country has turned to shit. Trump seems my only alternative. Tell me why I should vote for you.”
Johnson keeps walking, pondering. “Look, I’d tell you what I’ve done, what I did in New Mexico, where I don’t think I ever compromised my Libertarian views. I’d tell you how I will apply these same ideas to the country: the basic platform of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.”
“Yeah, but … this person feels desperate. You’re face-to-face with the guy, he wants to be convinced.”
He walks faster. “Convinced? I don’t know about that. I’d tell him what I had to say, let him think it over. If he still thought he’d vote for Trump, he should vote for Trump. I’m not going to try to convince anyone how they should vote.”
This seems a unique political stance, but Johnson is sticking to it. He says he understands the system might just be too broken, too corrupt, for him to hit that magic 15 percent. His is the high road. “People see the light, sooner or later. I have faith in the American public,” he tells me, right around the time a whole new bunch of Elmos appear, surrounding him again.
*This article appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.