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Gary Johnson’s Biggest Challenge Is Getting Noticed

Most voters want Johnson on the stage. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

CLEVELAND — If you’re a third-party presidential candidate with marginal name recognition among the general public, what better place to generate buzz about your campaign than at an event where 15,000 journalists have converged, all looking for an interesting story?

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for president, estimates that he has done 70 interviews, both formal and on the street, since he arrived here about a day ago. He is serious when he says he’s trying to keep a low profile, mainly because he doesn’t want to be disrespectful of the massive undertaking that the Republican National Committee took on in its nominating convention for Donald Trump. After all, Johnson was a Republican until five years ago, and he proudly won two terms as New Mexico’s governor in a heavily Democratic state.

What Johnson means by “low profile” is best exemplified in his interview with Morning Consult on Thursday. He has no work space here to speak of. The interview took place at a bustling coffee shop with high-top tables equipped with crayons and drawing paper. Like many of the journalists, delegates and lobbyists tramping around the city, Johnson wore running shoes and jeans and was happy to sip a latte.

Johnson is ginning up a conversation about his campaign in Cleveland, but his real focus is on the presidential debates this fall. With Trump, a TV ratings driver, at the top of the Republican ticket, the presidential debates could have more viewers than the Super Bowl this year. It would be Johnson’s one shot to truly become a household name.

“Not to sound crazy, but myself and [running mate] Bill Weld would not be doing this if we didn’t think we could actually win,” Johnson said. “But there’s no chance without the debate. Meaning, if we’re not in the debate, zero chance.”

Johnson is getting close to 15 percent in three-way matchups in Morning Consult’s polling, but those few percentage points will be hard fought. In order to get a spot on the presidential stage, he would need to be at 15 percent in five national polls selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

In Morning Consult’s newest poll, conducted July 14-16, Johnson had 11 percent of the vote, and he was polling at 13 percent in poll conducted a week earlier. At the beginning of June, he was at 9 percent. Johnson says the poll data is trending in the right direction, and he has confidence that the Johnson/Weld ticket will top 15 percent by the time debate season rolls around.

“We’ve got to really a lot of momentum here. Six to nine weeks ago, all of a sudden –maybe it was you — we’re at 10 percent. Well, that momentum continues, and that got noticed.”

Morning Consult’s latest poll, conducted July 14-16, shows that 41 percent of registered voters have never heard of Johnson, including 43 percent of independents who he could appeal to the most. But he needs to get in front of those people, which isn’t easy with a much smaller campaign operation than the two established political parties.

Until the Johnson campaign arrived in Cleveland, the former governor and his deputies didn’t have credentials that allowed them walk into the convention arena or its perimeter. That was a concern for finding interview spots. Johnson’s interview schedule has wound up being a cobbled-together affair with only a few staff on the ground and an overworked press secretary in Washington, D.C.

Johnson seems to enjoy the fact that his impromptu RNC convention media tour has grown organically, taking advantage of the thousands of writers and analysts trying to make sense of this presidential election.

“The narrative is getting really stale right now, Clinton and Trump, and so the timing is just unbelievable,” he said.

Will he be in Philadelphia next week for the Democratic National Convention? Maybe, he says. Like most lobbyists, analysts or reporters at the Republican convention, it’s hard to think as far ahead as next week. But there is no doubt that if Johnson wants to create buzz, he can find lots of willing listeners in the many followers of the two national political parties.

“The opportunity is with the media, and the media is going to be asking the same questions there that they’re asking here. What do you tell a Republican voter? What do you tell a Democratic voter? Well, it’s the same. I tell the person the same thing regardless of who I’m talking to.”

This may be Johnson’s strongest selling point, even if his some of his policy proposals might be out in left (or right) field. Democrats might chafe at his calls to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Education. Republicans might chafe at his unapologetic support for abortion rights and his decades-long call to legalize marijuana. Leaders in both political parties sound like wafflers on the war on drugs compared to Johnson, who cites mandatory minimum sentences and efforts by politicians to be “tough” on crime as the reason that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

“I think there’s plenty of shock value,” Johnson says of his policy positions. “There’s so many differences we have with both, and so many similarities we have with both of them. But isn’t that the electorate? The electorate is not polarized. The electorate is a combination, analogous to us going to college and hearing that if we’re not a Democrat in college, we don’t have a heart, and analogous to, ‘If you’re not a Republican in later life you don’t have a brain.’ We’ve all got hearts and brains, and that’s the make-up of the electorate.”

On most issues, libertarians generally are thought of as more conservative than traditional Republicans. Johnson, however, identifies himself more in the vein of his moderate running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Weld, also a Republican who was widely popular in a heavily blue state. (Weld was Massachusetts’ governor from 1991 to 1997. With his liberal stances on social issues, he could probably not survive as a Republican candidate now.)

“He was my role model. I acknowledged when I became governor that Bill Weld is the smartest guy in the room,” Johnson said.

Weld was Johnson’s first choice for a running mate. He said there was little negotiation between the two of them on policies. He was thrilled to learn that Weld had any interest. “I went to him. The message was, he was interested,” he said, adding that he was “numb” with awe.

“I give him a call on Saturday morning prepared to give him the best sales pitch of my life, and there was no sales pitch needed. He got it. He was on board.”

Weld brings a crucial benefit to the presidential campaign in fundraising. “He’s on the phone all day,” Johnson said. “One thing that Bill Weld said right at the get go is, ‘I really like to fundraise, and I really know everybody in the country that has money. Would you mind if I did that? It was amazing.”