Jay Westcott/The News & Advance/AP
Libertarian candidate for president Gary Johnson shakes hands on Oct. 17 with supporters at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Winning without the White House? Why Gary Johnson is aiming for 5 percent

If the Libertarian ticket carries at least 5 percent of the vote, then it would qualify for public funding for future campaigns. But will that reshape the next election?

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, the only third-party candidate whose name appears on the ballot in all 50 states, knows his chances of winning the White House are virtually nonexistent. Even so, his team has laid plans for an Election Day victory of a different sort – one with a payoff long after Nov. 8.

Mr. Johnson's drooping poll performance failed to qualify him for any of the three televised presidential debates, denying him the opportunity to face off with the two major-party candidates on a national stage.

"Regrettably, the attention I did not get in the debates, it's real," Johnson told ABC News on Monday.

Despite the harsh political reality, there could still be good reason for Libertarian supporters to cast ballots for Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. If the party were to win at least 5 percent of the popular vote this year, it would qualify for partial public funding of its presidential bid in the 2020 general election.

While strict rules have deterred Democrats and Republicans from accepting the public financing in recent years – they favor less-restrictive private fundraising – a Libertarian success story could trigger a financial boost. But analysts cautioned against taking too optimistic a view of third-party prospects down the line.

"It means he'd be eligible for the public funding other parties are eligible for," Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University in Washington, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

The idea behind that public pot of money, known formally as the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, was to rein in the political power of wealthy political donors in the wake of the 1972 Watergate scandal, Dr. Kazin explains.

"If you only take public money, then everybody will be fairly equal, and you can't race to get as many rich people as possible to support your campaign," Kazin says. "It hasn't really worked out that way, of course."

During his run for a first term in 2008, President Obama became the first major-party candidate to decline the public money since the fund was implemented during the 1976 election. His opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, meanwhile accepted more than $84 million, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records.

The sum accepted by Mr. McCain and his predecessors came with restrictions, and those limitations are the reason no major-party candidate has accepted the public funding in a general election since. Presidential hopefuls have found it easier to raise more money privately, Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington, D.C., tells the Monitor.

"If you obtain public financing, then there are restrictions on how much money you can spend in each state," Mr. Kappel says. "Over the last 12 years, major-party candidates have determined that they can raise more money privately than they can obtain through the public financing system without those restrictions."

The FEC says 2012 was the first general election in which both major-party nominees declined the public financing program. It was also the most expensive presidential election in American history – and 2016 may be on track to surpass it

Marilyn Thompson, a former deputy editor for Politico, outlined the rise and fall of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund in a paper last spring, as excerpted by The Atlantic:

In a presidential campaign awash in money, with anticipated spending of up to $10 billion this election year, the fund is a quaint throwback to an idealistic time, before Supreme Court decisions unleashed secretive outside-spending practices and before wealthy individuals dominated campaign fundraising.... At its height, the fund allowed candidates to forgo frenetic cross-country fundraising. The program boosted outsiders like Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, and for years, it helped limit campaign costs. But with the explosion of campaign spending, fewer and fewer candidates have embraced the program. Today, it has become irrelevant.

For Johnson and his party, the idea behind the push for 5 percent of the electorate is clear: as undeniable underdogs, they would benefit from the financing and recognition. With just two weeks left, they have turned their attention to the states showing the greatest potential for success, including New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, and the Dakotas. 

And pollsters are saying Johnson's odds of hitting that magic number, despite a recent slump, remain good.

"That still looks like it's probably going to happen," FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten wrote Monday. "And while that might not be the most glorious ending [to Johnson's campaign], it's still a better ending nationally than any other third-party candidate for president since 1996."

But would this more solid footing actually boost Libertarian viability in the next presidential race? Not really, says Lara Brown, an associate professor and interim director of the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

"Quite frankly, there probably won't be as much interest in a Libertarian candidacy come 2020, unless you have essentially a complete failure of both political parties to address the voters' concerns and reasons why voters are interested in voting third-party anyway," Dr. Brown tells the Monitor.

"In other words," she adds, "much of the support that is behind Gary Johnson and Jill Stein – which is now looking to be not very substantial, though it was about a month ago – is really about a frustration and a desire to protest the two candidates that we have in our current major-party nominees."

For campaign finance more generally, some onlookers would like more candidates to use the public fund instead of pandering to the wealthy, but there's a problem, says Kazin, the Georgetown professor and editor of the liberal Dissent magazine. What candidate would voluntarily take on a competitive disadvantage by way of fundraising limitations?

"As long as you have that loophole, as long as you allow private spending alongside public spending, no candidate, especially a presidential candidate – for that matter, even candidates for lower officers, where there isn’t that money available – is going to limit themselves when money is crucial to win elections in this country, unfortunately," Kazin says.

Brown, who has authored multiple books on the American presidency, cites a political science lesson known as Duverger's law to explain why third-party candidates have a hard time winning in the United States. But she does not connect their lack of success to a lack of funding.

"The message is what attracts the money," Brown says, attributing Johnson's poor performance in the polls to his embarrassing gaffes on foreign policy, and lack of attractive policies.

While the Johnson campaign may be capitalizing on the discord of an unusual election, both Kazin and Brown agreed it would be unreasonable to expect a Libertarian success to break the two-party system.

"If Ross Perot got 19 percent of the popular vote, as he did in 1992, and that wasn't the end of our two-party system, you can certainly bet that this won't be either," she says.

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