In an election year where the two major-party candidates have some of the highest unfavorable ratings in history, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson is making his case as an alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. On Monday, the former governor of New Mexico came to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center to discuss his candidacy, the election at large and the greatest challenges the next president will face.
Johnson spoke in front of a live audience as a guest on the Miller Center’s nationally broadcast public affairs program, “American Forum.” This is the first year that the Miller Center has invited presidential candidates on the show, and Johnson is the third to visit. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, both appeared while still vying for their party nominations.
“We decided to invite Johnson recently, as he began to have more substantial poll numbers, especially in certain parts of the country,” the show’s host, Douglas Blackmon, said. “A Libertarian Party candidate also has much more relevance in an election in which the Republican Party is in such turmoil.”
Blackmon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and director of public programs for the Miller Center, spoke with Johnson about what he thinks will happen to his Libertarian followers and conservatives as a whole if the current poll numbers hold and the Republican Party falls into distress as a result of a defeat in November.
“I think the Libertarian Party is growing by leaps and bounds and the Libertarian Party is the logical replacement for the Republican Party,” Johnson said.
He went on to argue that a growing number of Americans are registering as independents each year because they are dissatisfied with the two major-party options. Johnson believes many of these independents support the basic Libertarian principles of a small government that is fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
Second-year College of Arts & Sciences student Mary Garner McGehee agreed that more Americans, especially among her peers, are looking toward Johnson’s party for a different political option. While she’s not supporting Johnson herself, McGehee was curious to hear what the candidate had to say in person.
“I think it’s really interesting hearing differing conservative opinions because so many of my conservative friends are not pro-Trump and they are voting mostly for Gary Johnson,” she said. “I just like hearing more fleshed-out versions of the opposition. It’s hard to get a mainstream media opinion of Gary Johnson, so I figured I’d go right to the source.”
Although many Johnson supporters are turning to him and the Libertarian Party for the first time this year, some UVA students were at “American Forum” to show support for a candidate who has long been their first choice.
“I was very excited to get an opportunity to see him in person,” said Sam Dalton, a fourth-year student and co-president of Youth for Johnson/Weld at UVA. “I’ve followed the campaign very closely since May and voted for Johnson in 2012 as well, so this will be my second election voting for him.”
Pointing to Libertarian Party growth from new and young members like Dalton, Johnson spoke with the Miller Center audience about the need to give third parties more opportunities on the national stage. He suggested that candidates that have met the threshold of getting on the ballot in all 50 states should receive the same national security briefings that are given to the major-party candidates. Johnson, who the Real Clear Politics website reports is averaging around 6 percent nationally, also took issue with the polling minimums that have barred him from the presidential debates.
“I’m polling higher than Ross Perot when he was allowed in the presidential debates,” he said.
In addition to discussing his candidacy itself, Johnson took questions from Blackmon on national security, gun control, immigration and the national deficit. He addressed the direct impact of the national debt on the many Millennial students in the room.
“If we don’t balance the budget, that burden falls on young people,” Johnson said.
Those students listening to him included not only the curious observers and the declared supporters who sat in the audience, but also those who work behind the scenes every week at “American Forum.”
“Every semester, a group of 15 to 20 students take one of two classes I teach in association with the production of ‘American Forum,’” Blackmon said. “They are credited onscreen as full associate producers and play a big role in the research and strategizing behind how we approach every guest. Many of the questions for Gary Johnson came from or were inspired by my students.”
The full interview was streamed via Facebook Live, so those who were unable to attend may watch it on the Miller Center’s Facebook page. It will also air on PBS stations around the country in the next two weeks. Check local listings for times and dates.