Gary Johnson on Tonight's CNN Town Hall: 'It can't be bigger. I mean, really, this is really, really big'

Libertarian nominee explains how he'll try to come off as 'likable' and 'pragmatic' during his unprecedented prime-time turn


It's gotta be the shoes. ||| Matt Welch
Matt Welch

As Brian Doherty wrote here earlier, the Libertarian Party continues to experience an "unprecedented media wave" of attention that will be punctuated tonight at 9 p.m. ET by a CNN town hall showcasing the L.P. ticket of former liberal Republican governors Gary Johnson and William Weld. Earlier today I caught up with Johnson at The New Yorker hotel and asked him to contrast this media moment to what he experienced in 2012 as the Libertarian Party nominee.

"Four years ago in June we'd be making about fifteen calls a week to end up with maybe on average one national media appearance of some sort a week," the former New Mexico governor told me. "As opposed to [now] having twenty national media requests a day."

Johnson spoke with me after conducting a long interview with New Yorker political correspondent Ryan Lizza, then prepping over the phone with economics advisor Jeffrey A. Miron of Harvard and Cato. His campaign is a constant presence on MSNBC and CNN (Fox News is a more difficult nut to crack, particularly in prime time), and has to turn down more requests than it can accommodate, says Communication Director Joe Hunter. The post-Libertarian convention strategy of hopping from green room to green room while agitating to be included in polls appears to be bearing fruit. Given the fact that voters don't know much about the candidate—a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 83 percent didn't know enough about the man to form an opinion, the stakes tonight are unusually high.

"It can't be bigger. I mean really, this is really, really big," Johnson said. "I think we've started the playoffs….We're in the quarterfinals here, and we have a chance to move up. The Super Bowl being the presidential debates."

So what's the strategy for tonight? Above all else, "We need to come off as likable, and as pragmatic," Johnson said. The viewers should walk away thinking, "These are guys that have done it, and we like 'em." A combination, he archly adds, "that doesn't exist currently."

The campaign has watched all the previous presidential-candidate town halls with CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, is ready to stake out starkly different territory than the major-party nominees on the long-term unsustainability of entitlements and debt, and is probably more pleased than many libertarians that the former prosecutor Weld responded to the Orlando shootings with a plan to create a special anti-terrorism task force.

"It's something that I saw as governor, and something that I've seen repeat itself many times," Johnson said. "When something like that happens, you've got to have an answer, you can't just not have an answer. You can't say that it's acceptable, you've got to have something to say going forward. So I thought that Bill Weld actually had a pretty decent response to that." And the more we learn about how the FBI handled the case, the more critical questions can be raised. "They had to have fucked up," he said.

I asked whether the campaign feels like it has won the poll war, given their frequent inclusion and increasing numbers, and Johnson was adamant: "No! It's still one out of five polls, one out of six polls that we're in," he said. "Every day you'll see a poll—40 for Hillary, and 39 for Trump—well, where's the other 21?"

The results that have come in have been encouraging. "It is going up," Johnson said. "If you even go back three weeks ago…the consensus number might have been at 6, and now it's at 10. And that really is significant."

Some of the bumps in the numbers so far can be attributed to Donald Trump sewing up the Republican nomination in Indiana ("That was a 5,000 percent increase in Google hits overnight") and Weld winning the vice presidential nomination. But another potential boost is yet to come. "The last one to fall is Bernie Sanders," Johnson said. "I mean he's still not out—the Bernie Sanders vote hasn't gone anywhere yet….Until he actually drops out, or Hillary is the nominee, that event won't occur."

So how will Johnson and Weld take advantage of this historic opportunity? Consider this your open thread to discuss, and stay tuned to this space for more post-game commentary.