"We're approaching things a little differently," says Gary Johnson in an introductory video to his campaign. A little differently indeed. Johnson has held a Q&A with voters on Reddit, crowdsurfed at rallies, and - in a CNN article entitled "Why I'm running for president" - bragged about climbing Mount Everest. Johnson is something that neither Trump nor Clinton are: he's cool, and for some young voters, that matters.
It's no secret that Bernie Sanders dominated among millennial voters. He came off as pure; an outsider, anti-establishment, and, crucially, in touch. Clinton, meanwhile, tried to appear hip by going on daytime television and doing the whip. After all, nothing says "with it" like stopping by Ellen and jamming out to Silento.
Sanders, unlike Clinton, was a master of branding, both of himself and of his opponents. He quickly broke from his promise to run a positive campaign, making Clinton's alleged Wall Street ties undeniably central to his message. Combined with Republican attacks, the brand stuck: Crooked Hillary was born. I talk about Sanders in the past tense as he no longer has a chance at the White House. But many of his supporters can't let go. They can't vote Trump; that much is clear. But after being told for months by their hero that Clinton is in the pocket of Wall Street, it understandably creates a sense of vertigo to hear him say they must support her. The reason he gives? #NeverTrump. Clinton and Trump have become entwined to these millennial voters, both just another continuation of establishment politics. Sanders told them to change the system, and now it's time.
Enter a candidate who refers to his opponents as ClinTrump: Gary Johnson. Conventional wisdom suggests that Libertarians take from the Republican base; after all, they double down on the Republicans' fiscal conservatism and emphasis on personal liberty. But - in the dictionary sense of the words - the Libertarians are liberal, not conservative. Classically liberal, but liberal nonetheless. It's no surprise that a self-described "Party of Principle" that makes "maximum freedom" its central tenet would draw rebellious, idealistic young people.
What's surprising is the massive leaps in ideology Bernie-to-Gary supporters seem to be able to make overnight. Sanders' message was one of democratic socialism; Gary's is one of laissez faire capitalism. Sanders appealed to young people by talking about the prospect of tuition-free college; Johnson wants to abolish guaranteed student loans, believing that it would cause universities to become more affordable. His logic: competitive markets lead to lower prices. Sanders wanted every citizen to have access to the healthcare they need; when a Reddit user told Johnson they could no longer afford their therapist, he told the user not to "be a victim" and to "create your own job." Johnson voiced this opinion in the name of "entrepreneurship" and "individual freedom and liberty."
For a party that purportedly supports social liberalism (American code for minority empowerment), they're having a hard time persuading minority votes to get onboard. But Johnson and his party are nominally in favour of civil rights, and that's what counts: Johnson has the image of being socially conscious. It comes back to image. This election has found Americans deeply preoccupied with the perceived purity of their candidates. Johnson comes across as cool and bullshit-free. He's an obvious outsider with a simple political philosophy and, consequently, clear values. Trump is perceived as telling it like it is and not being influenced by the establishment. Is it true? Doesn't matter. It appears true, so it is. Obama seems like a Kenyan Muslim to some of these supporters, so he is (he's not). At best Hillary Clinton is good at service and bad at having a public persona; at worst she's CrookedTM. This narrative has become so pervasive that in her DNC speech, Clinton began trying to make the former her brand, because otherwise she has to be the latter.
Labels don't come off easily. As Mitt Romney lamented in the documentary Mitt, he was a flip-flopper in the public eye, and there was nothing he could do to change that image. Dan Quayle is dumb; Jeb Bush is W's brother; Hillary Clinton is inauthentic. It's the victory of cult of personality over issues that brought Sanders' supporters to Johnson. But how big is all of this? According to HuffPo, only 44% of Americans say they're even open to a third-party candidate, but 18% of pre-DNC Bloomberg-polled Sanders' supporters are planning to back Johnson. Clinton is only bringing in about half of Sanders' supporters in this poll, but CNN puts her numbers among this group up by nearly another 10% after the DNC.
More significantly, she still has a major lead in the general election. According to Real Clear Politics' compilation of the major national polls, Clinton is up 7.1 percentage points in a three-way race with Johnson and Trump as of August 9. In terms of electoral votes, traditional party lines already give Clinton 26 more electoral votes than Trump (basically the equivalent of already having a Florida). For Trump to win, he has to far outperform Clinton in the swing states. But there is a chance. Though Johnson is only averaging 8.9% at the polls, some polls put him as high as 12%. To get into the national debates, he only needs 15%. From there, he may sway enough voters from Clinton to swing crucial states to Trump.
Johnson's growing popularity may well represent a changing of the guard. Will the Libertarian Party - which has increased rapidly this year from its usual 1% polling - continue to grow and become a threat next election? Will its ideas trickle into the Republican platform as Sanders' trickled into the Democrats'?
Maybe, but for now Johnson points to an America ingrained in cults of personality, vaguely angry at abstract concepts, and feeling powerless - these emotions result in some bizarre paradoxes. Many poor white voters, for example, want the embodiment of economic privilege as their voice. Trump supports bathroom rights for transgender people, has been unconvincing in showing that the Bible means anything to him, appears on the cover of Playboy, and wants to raise the minimum wage.
All of this is antithetical to the Republican platform, but Republicans poured out in large support for him over conventional conservatives. To the Bernie-to-Gary millennials wondering how that could happen, I say the answer may be closer to you than you think.
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