Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, making a second White House bid as the Libertarian nominee, suspects he's risen to an impressive 10% in the latest national polls based less on his strength than on voter unhappiness with their other, better-known options.
"I understand that any third name -- because of the disconnect or the polarization of (Donald) Trump and (Hillary) Clinton -- any third name would be registering," Johnson, 63, told Capital Download on Thursday. "But 'anybody's' not on the ballot in all 50 states." He will be, and with his distinctive views on everything from gun restrictions (opposing almost all of them) and marijuana (supporting legalization) could put him in a position to draw enough votes to affect the presidential race even if he is unlikely to win it.
His immediate goal is to reach the 15% poll standing that would gain him admission to the presidential debates next fall, assuming they take place, and expose him to millions of American voters who have never heard of him before. And who knows what might happen then?
"The two parties are the minority party currently to independents," Johnson tells USA TODAY's weekly video newsmaker series. He says he disagrees with Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, on immigration, trade and more. And he says disparagingly that Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, believes "government is the solution to everything," and on national security issues "would be as hawkish as anybody who has occupied the presidency." But he volunteers that he doesn't think she was guilty of "criminal intent" in the controversies over the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, or her use of a private email server as secretary of State.
The record negative ratings for both major-party candidates -- and the Libertarian Party's meticulous efforts to get on ballots in all 50 states and the District of Columbia -- has opened a path for Johnson to become the most consequential third-party contender since Ross Perot two decades ago. Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, have stronger Republican credentials than the GOP's presumptive nominee can claim.
And his longtime support for legalizing marijuana could help him appeal to Democratic-leaning Millennial voters who were drawn to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders but are less enthused about supporting Clinton. Johnson was the highest-ranking U.S. politician to back legalization until Sanders did so.
"I think it's a litmus test for having a brain, myself," Johnson says, saying there is "an unbelievable disconnect" between public support and politicians' caution on the issue. Still, he adds, "I haven't had a drink of alcohol in 29 years because of rock climbing and the notion of being the best that you can be, and in that same vein I've stopped using marijuana of any kind."
For how long?
"It's been about seven weeks," he says, a decision to abstain that he would continue as president, if elected. "I want to be completely on top of my game, all cylinders."
In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando that left 49 victims dead, Johnson says Americans would be safer if guns were more readily available, not more restricted -- a stance that puts him in line with the fiercest advocates of Second Amendment rights. Even Trump has suggested in a tweet that he wants to discuss banning gun sales to those on the terrorist watch lists, a proposal Johnson opposes because some names may erroneously appear on them.
"All these atrocities have been happening in gun-free zones," he declares. "If there were law-abiding citizens that were carrying weapons -- I'm not saying they would lessen the impact of these horrible atrocities, but maybe, maybe they could."
Johnson says the laws permitting "concealed carry" in some states have reduced violent crime. A criminal might think, he suggests, "Gee, do I try to steal this woman's purse in this parking lot, or seven or eight of these people who are around here, are they carrying weapons and I might get hurt, so I'm going to not accost her." Over the past five years, he himself has purchased two guns, kept at his home in Taos, for self-protection.
He also sees possession of guns as a bulwark against government tyranny.
"I mean, there have been atrocious drug raids and atrocious drug raids that have resulted in the death of individuals that were completely innocent," he says. "I would just ask the question, if the DEA knew they were raiding someone's home where they had automatic weapons, if that was just a known element of 'we're going to raid these people,' would they have raided them in the first place, just knowing that they had that deterrent?"
Even so, Johnson also says he has a "nuanced" view of the Libertarian Party platform plank, which opposes "all laws at any level of government" restricting guns. "We should be open to a discussion on keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill," he says. "I don't know how that manifests itself, but I'm looking to get elected president of the United States. I just want to let people know I have an open mind about how we might, how government might, interject itself in a lot of the problems we have."