At the Libertarian Party of Florida state convention held this past weekend, former GOP presidential candidate Gary Johnson didn't just win the straw poll; with 42 of the 60 votes cast, he wiped the floor.
If Johnson can replicate that success in other states, he'll have little trouble getting the nomination at the national Libertarian Party convention in May. Compared to fellow former Republican Bob Barr, who was tied for the nomination through five rounds of ballots at the 2008 national convention, getting the backing of the LP is going to be a cakewalk for Johnson.
But what about the rest of America? Johnson is hoping to poll high enough to appear with President Barack Obama and the GOP nominee in a televised debate, and pull 5 percent in the general election. The former two-term governor of New Mexico, an experienced coalition-builder, is having a hard time coralling people who lean libertarian, but aren't quite.
Take, for instance, his appeals to marijuana voters.
Johnson's decision to campaign on legalizing marijuana was based on principle: He's used it, he thinks it's safer than booze, and he hates the drug war. It was also based on some hypothetical math: "100 million Americans have admitted to using marijuana," Johnson told me two weeks before the Florida straw poll. "If they all gave me a dollar, that's a hundred million bucks."
In theory, it was a swell plan. In practice, Johnson has "done so many events with marijuana. So many marijuana events. Basically, nothing comes out of it other than for an enthusiasm for what I say. No money comes out of it."
That's not to say that marijuana policy reform advocates are broke, or cheap. Progressive Insurance founder Peter B. Lewis has donated half a million dollars this election cycle to Prop. 66, which would reform California's onerous three-strikes law, and another $159,000 to the Drug Policy Alliance Network Committee. (Lewis's deep pockets also made the Marijuana Policy Project what it is today.)
But what weed money there is, isn't flowing to Johnson. So he's going back to the basics: Cutting the size of government. But even that can prove difficult. In a 2012 election in which Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is promising to cut spending by $1 trillion, Johnson is still searching for a way to earn media attention.
"'How do you differ from Ron Paul? Ron Paul's proposing a $1 trillion reduction!' people say. Well, I'm proposing a $1.4 trillion reduction." Johnson seldom puts it that way, though. Instead he calls it a 43 percent cut in government spending.
Over dinner, I asked Johnson how to make that message…sexier.
"How do you?" he replied. "We talk about this all the time. That's kind of the crux. It's not a sexy message, but if we don't cut Medicare by 43 percent, there's not gonna be any Medicare."
Reducing the size and scope of government is not a new mantra for Johnson. He vetoed bills with abandon while governor and left New Mexico with a budget surplus. His struggle to get traction at the national level occasionally makes him wonder what's changed.
"I mean, how did I get elected in New Mexico in the first place? And get re-elected? I mean, I'm questioning that these days. How did that happen?"
Identity crisis aside, Johnson is upbeat about his chances with the Libertarian Party. Due to his profile, he's not just the odds-on favorite for winning the nomination, but the party's best chance for getting coverage in the general election.
"They did a poll [in Florida] a couple weeks ago. The names were Gary Johnson, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney. Those 3 names. I was at 9 percent," Johnson said. That's pretty good, I replied to him. "It is. And not so much that it's me, but just any third name, right? Any third name. But there's a potential here to be at 15 percent. I think there's a real potential. [It's not going to be] Ron Paul who people are galvanizing behind. Who are they gonna galvanize behind?"
While Johnson told the audience at the Florida Libertarian Party convention, "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think there was a possibility of actually winning," he's also thinking about what happens if he loses. "The best a Libertarian candidate has ever done is just over 1 percent in the general election," Johnson told me two weeks ago. "If I'm the nominee and if I get 5 percent of the national vote, the Libertarian Party gets $90 million in federal matching funds."
That sort of money would boost the LP's profile—and presumably Johnson's—considerably.
But to pull 5 percent in the general election (something no LP candidate has ever done), Johnson has to, at the very least, sell his message to 5 percent of American voters. To that end, he's ditching his door-to-door campaign strategy.
"You knock on 100 doors in New Hampshire, you reach 100 people. So we've refocused this. I'm not gonna knock on doors anymore. It's not productive. I made 20 media appearances while I was in New York [last week]. I thought that was time really well-spent."
Five percent or less, win or lose, Johnson is going to keep at this for as long as he can. "If you were given the opportunity, I think you would really have to think about doing it and change the world a little bit. It's always been about the message."
Mike Riggs is an associate editor of Reason magazine.