Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and current Libertarian nominee for president, stepped onstage at the Albuquerque Convention Center wearing mesh Nikes and mom jeans, the uniform apparent for a candidate whose Super PAC just spent $30,000 on “internet web memes.”
Tears welled in his eyes—a reaction, he says, to hearing his two adult children speak on his behalf moments before.
“Is this the craziest election ever?” asked Johnson to a crowd of hundreds on Aug. 20. “You know how crazy it is, right? I’m going to be the next president of the United States.”
When Johnson ran on the Libertarian ticket in 2012, he received 1 percent of the popular vote. But in this polarizing election, Libertarian hopefuls see a rare opportunity for his third-party candidacy, which has secured ballot access with 39 states. Polls show major-party nominees Hillary Clinton, and even more so, Donald Trump, at historically low favorability levels. Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, are attempting to bring their poll numbers up to 15 percent, the threshold for a spot on the debate stage in September.
Johnson cut straight to his stump speech: Get rid of income and corporate taxes to create “millions” of jobs. Strip away zoning regulations and watch affordable housing rise. Enter trade deals and encourage entrepreneurship.
“The model of the future is Uber everything. Uber doctor, Uber lawyer, Uber accountant, electrician, plumber,” Johnson said. “Eliminate the middleman.”
Alfred Walker, an assistant attorney for the City of Santa Fe, stood in the front row, throwing his arms up in agreement with the Johnson philosophy of “keeping government out of our bedrooms and out of our pocketbooks.” Walker has always been a “small-L” libertarian, he tells SFR, but this will be his first time voting for the party proper.
Clinton and Trump? “They are both exactly the same,” he says. “They’ll both increase the size of government.”
Before Johnson came on stage, several New Mexico Republicans offered their support for the candidate. (The state provided his best showing in 2012, giving him about 3.55 percent of the popular vote.) Johnson, who first made a career running a construction firm, served two terms as governor from 1995 to 2003.
State Sen. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, said she would “spit” at the next suggestion that a vote for Johnson is really a vote for Clinton or Trump.
“Trump is a pussy!” interrupted a supporter from the back of the room, echoing a public comment made by Johnson not once, but twice, this election cycle. (Clinton and Green Party candidate Jill Stein are the two remaining large party hopefuls who have yet to make crude reference to the female anatomy. Notice a pattern?)
A Blair Dunn, son of Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn and Republican candidate for state Senate in Bernalillo County, kicked off the event with crowd-rousing calls to action. “New Mexico and Albuquerque, are you ready for some liberty?”
Dunn also came with jokes. “Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Trump and Hillary are riding a plane across the Atlantic and they crash. Who wins?” said Dunn, before revealing his punchline: “America.”
And even before Dunn joked about the two major presidential candidates dying in a fiery accident, Johnson wandered among a group of lowriders outside the convention center who had recently announced their support for the Libertarian ticket.
At one point, the former governor climbed inside a candy-green whip and glued his hands to the ceiling as the vehicle bounced wildly into the air. Political gods could not have dreamed up a better photo-op.
“I am so honored,” Johnson repeated as supporters approached him for selfies.
Backdropped by cars with Lambo doors, the governor sat down for a television interview.
“I’ve never thought about asking a candidate for president this, but how does it feel to use marijuana?” the interviewer asked.
“I would say it feels pleasant,” Johnson replied. He last consumed marijuana in the form of edibles about three months ago. (The former governor, a health nut, stopped smoking.) He also served as CEO of a marijuana branding company called Cannabis Sativa Inc., but stepped down to run for president.
Johnson’s opposition to the War on Drugs is perhaps his best-known position. Walker, the city attorney, says he didn’t totally agree with Johnson when he announced his support for legalizing marijuana in 1999, but he admired the governor’s conviction while Bill Clinton’s drug czar called him “Puff Daddy Johnson.”
“What the governor said made me think, We need to talk about it,” said Walker, who previously served as an assistant district attorney.
Another distinction of Johnson: He wants to roll back American interventionism. He’s been a critic of the Obama administration’s backing of rebel groups during the Syrian and Libyan civil wars—a move he says has helped foster extremist groups like the Islamic State.
“In my lifetime, I cannot think of a single instance where when we’ve supported regime change it has resulted in anything better,” Johnson said during the rally.
It’s a message that resonates with John Lovell, a 35-year-old Army veteran who spoke with SFR outside a nearby Starbucks a few hours before.
Lovell sported flowing brown hair and a t-shirt emblazoned with the Libertarian mascot: a red, white and blue porcupine. He turned to the party in spite of contrary influences in his life. Lovell’s father, a Democrat, pushed him leftwards because of his family’s working class background, he says. His platoon sergeant, a Republican, nudged him to the right because of the GOP’s small-government philosophy.
In 2012, Lovell heard then-Republican presidential nominee Ron Paul speak, and he found his people.
“People should not have to witness what I saw over there. It was horrifying,” he tells SFR, referring to the Iraq War.
Johnson, for the record, is currently the leading presidential candidate in polls among active military personnel.