Will Gary Johnson Make the Debates?

By Richard Morris & Eileen McGann

August 3, 2016 3 min read

To qualify for inclusion in the fall presidential debates, a candidate needs at least 15 percent in the national polls. Libertarian Gary Johnson is now at 7.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls, up from 4.5 percent on June 13. As popular discontent with both of the major party candidates spreads, the chances that Johnson will reach the threshold increase.

Johnson can raise money. To date, he has amassed $1.4 million and has just under half a million on hand. His biggest donor is GTCR LLC, a private equity and venture capital fund that has donated $10,000. Its principals are David A. Donnini and Philip A. Canfield.

If Johnson can ride discontent with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he could well reach the magical 15 percent threshold. After that, the sky is the limit. With both Trump and Clinton running at more than 50 percent in their unfavorability ratings, Johnson will gain support quickly.

That will confront Trump and Clinton with a dilemma: Do they attack Johnson or leave him alone? To mention him would be to drive votes in his direction making it a three-way race. But to fail to go after him leaves him to run as a blank slate on which voters can write anything they want in Trump or Clinton but do not find.

At the moment, Johnson seems to draw equally on both major candidates' voter pool. In a two-way race, according to the RealClearPolitics.com average, Clinton leads by 4.4 points, the exact same margin she has in a four-way race (including Green Party candidate Jill Stein).

But because the intensity of support for Trump is higher than it is for Clinton, Johnson — over time — would likely draw more from the Democrats than from the Republicans.

Johnson's libertarian platform would seem to coincide with Clinton's on social issues. He calls himself "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" and says "we don't care what you are socially as long as you don't force it on others." But he moves into Trump territory when he condemns "military interventions" that he says "have led to things being made worse, not better."

But issues will have little to do with his impact. The more personal the attacks on Trump and Clinton become, the more attractive Johnson will loom as an alternative. And, as a blank slate, he may escape major negatives himself.

Its too early to predict what the Johnson effect might be, but it is not too soon to notice his rise in the polls and to speculate that he might make it into the debates and become a key factor in the race.

(Note that in 1990 and 1994, Governor Bill Weld of Massachusetts was Dick Morris' client. He is currently running for vice president with Johnson; however, Dick Morris is not involved.)

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