"We have been very surprised and pleased by the magnitude of support and interest and demand on Gary [Johnson's] and Bill [Weld's] time" since the two men clinched the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination on May 30, says their campaign manager Ron Nielson in a phone interview last week.
They are pumped enough to begin thinking about which specific states the ticket could be seriously competitive in to concentrate efforts. These include Utah (where Johnson is already polling impressively), Nevada, New Mexico, "other Rocky mountain states" and a few in the northeast they think they can appeal to, including New Hampshire.
Not, though, what are thought of this year as "battleground states" between the Republicans and Democrats. "It would never work in Ohio or Michigan, too much money we'd be fighting against," he says. They want to aim at places with "bases of libertarian-leaning support, largely independent."
In terms of fundraising, Nielson says they have been "talking to larger donors but haven't had time to close a lot of deals" yet. When it comes to the SuperPACs that can raise beyond campaign finance limits for campaigns themselves, they can't be very deeply involved by law though they are allowed to "talk to them, be friendly, go to events" but cannot directly solicit large amounts of money or communicate on how PACs should spend their money.
But he's not that worried about big money given their early successes in earned media, which means "we don't have to raise a tremendous amount" to reach the American people if they can keep getting major media interviews and coverage and go for that goal of 15 percent in enough polls to get into the debates.
As far as getting into those polls, he says it is now in some ways "a campaign to major executives" at big news operations, who he thinks can and will be influential via polls they might be running themselves, or just by making Johnson and Weld seem a very big deal, about who gets included. "If we can create enough interest to be on the news" then pollsters may consider it vital to include them.
Nielson was already a professional campaign consultant, mostly for Republicans, with a firm called RT Nielson, when he met Gary Johnson back in 1993, launching his first political campaign as a private citizen and successful businessman with his contracting firm Big J Enterprises. In a tough three-way race, the political amateur Johnson won the governorship. The experience was "a lot of fun," Nielson remembers, and he returned to help Johnson with his second victory and "we maintained a friendship" and thus Johnson turned to Nielson again when he decided, around 2009 or '10, that he'd like to consider running for president. "I had been out of politics for awhile" at that point, doing mostly strategic corporate consulting and market research, Nielson remembers, "but it was intriguing" and they teamed up again.
Johnson, Nielson says of his first run as a businessman for governor in New Mexico, "was completely outside the realm of all the other candidates running" then and "that gave us, I think, an opportunity." His primary foes were "all known, entrenched in the Republican Party, and Gary was a complete unknown. It was a great situation because if you can take that moment and create a message without any baggage? And that was what we did and [the citizens of New Mexico] bought it. It was an exciting race. We came from nowhere to winning the primary by a very slight margin, then did very well in the general."
This was right after Ross Perot's first outside-businessman run for president, and "that concept of bringing something new that people might be looking for, we capitalized on that enough to energize the entire campaign."
The bid for the GOP crown they made in 2011 did not work out. "We were hoping we'd be able to catch fire, raise funds, run a competitive race, but we were never really able to attract the media attention we needed and fundraising didn't catch on." Johnson had some existing money relationships from New Mexico, but around the country, "not so much."
But Johnson still wanted to try to make a national splash in the 2012 race, so they turned to the Libertarian Party, a decision Nielson says he was central to making. "I was very familiar with the status of the L.P. and what it was able to accomplish, and its struggles." When October 2011 came around, "I contacted Gary and we were talking and I said I think the best option is we seek the L.P. nomination. That way you can have a voice in the general election. You want to stay in front of the cameras talking and to do that you need a box to stand on, and the L.P. provided that, and also meshed well with Gary's issues and stances. It was a natural fit. Running as an independent was too costly and the L.P. both had the infrastructure and meshed with his issues. It was a good decision."
As far as their first experience meshing a Johnson campaign with the Libertarian Party, "I thought it went very well," Nielson says. "They worked very hard and I enjoyed working with them. I have great respect for the people in the national Party staff. They are very hard working individuals who helped as much as they possibly could, and I expect to have the same relationship" this time around.
"They are not the Republicans or the Democrats, they don't have those kinds of resources or infrastructure," but they are vital to the most important part of running for president: ballot access, a matter that both campaign and Party collaborate on. Nielson says "we dumped close to half" of the total money spent on ballot access in 2012**, and plan to make the same contribution this time. (Around 18 state deadlines are still ahead for ballot access, though the Party and Nielson anticipate winning all of them.)
Nielson says his old friend Johnson is driven by feeling his "country was not being lead in the proper direction, too many things taking place he didn't agree with. Gary is still the outsider looking in, but he's got lots to say and if given the opportunity to say it I'm confident he'll get more support" than last time. When they started their L.P. foray in 2011, Nielson says, they understood the process would work best with two different runs, the second building on the first. Making Johnson spend so much time traveling hours a day to meet in person with groups that might amount to just 15 people or so, they found from 2012, isn't the optimal use of the candidate's time.
Was it frustrating, I ask Nielson, that, given Johnson's political record and his pulling a record high vote total for the L.P. in 2012, that it was such a tough fight to win the nomination again, with a 55 percent win on a second ballot? "That the other candidates gained strength and built support was really our fault, the fact we chose to wait until January to announce we were running. We tried to run this contentious campaign without involving Gary directly in the constant attacks he was receiving on a daily basis. But all we needed to do was win. We didn't have to win by a giant margin."
Despite the contention, including a fair amount of accusations of Machiavellian manipulation aimed at Nielson himself, he says now "I think everyone worked through their problems and we want to invite everyone [in the L.P.] to join together to promote liberty." In response to accusations of skulduggery to win the campaign (I reported earlier on unverifiable reports of buying all available hotel rooms to stymie other delegates), Nielson says "When you are running a campaign, you buy T-shirts and propaganda material and send it around, but I don't know we did anything that would be considered unethical or anything other campaigns weren't doing" in terms of trying to wrangle and support delegates.
Moving forward with the campaign, Nielson says, "our audience really is major media decision makers, and we've made good progress" on that in the weeks since the nomination.
Nielson says a political cartoon showing Johnson and Weld as guys with suit and ties and briefcase looking like attorneys with Trump and Clinton portrayed as bratty children sums up the appeal they hope to have: "two well respected governors running on experience, knowledge, and credibility who could walk in and govern tomorrow. We are trying to sell that these guys are serious and have a lot to say and are not just some kooky third party."
**Correction: The article originally mistakenly said the Johnson '12 campaign had spent half of its money on ballot access.