The Washington Post

Gary Johnson eyes a second-place finish in D.C.

Johnson, at a September campaign appearance in Minnesota (Jim Mone/AP)

While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney scurry across swing states, appearing at packed rallies and high-stakes debates, Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson stood in Dupont Circle bar specializing in board games Thursday evening, vying for the unswingiest of America’s electoral votes among a cozy group of small-government true believers.

Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, holds hope that his message will appeal to District residents put off by both the incumbent president and his GOP challenger. With a fiscally conservative but socially accepting (pro gay marriage, pro marijuana legalization, pro online gambling) message well calibrated for urban sensibilities, Johnson is hoping he can outpoll Romney in a few key D.C. precincts — perhaps even come in second overall.

Despite views that would pull the government out of many arenas where the District government is particularly active — business regulation, social welfare — Johnson said as president it would not be his place to make sweeping changes to the city.

“If local government is big, that’s where big government belongs, at a local level where you can actually change that,” he said in a brief interview. “I would take the tack that it needs to be decided on the local level, and if I was on the local level, I would be pushing for all these initiatives to open things up, make it more competitive.”

Johnson showed a passing familiarity with the District’s, shall we say, active approach to regulating for-hire vehicles — such as the Taxicab Commission’s handling of the Uber luxe-car app and the D.C. Council’s consideration of a “medallion system” that would cap the number of city cabs: “I saw that! I saw that! That is about as anti-libertarian as I think you could possibly get. Why not give a taxi medallion to anybody who is able to meet what I think should be some safety requirements and proficiency requirements, and the result of that will be lower cost and, really, better service.”

He also declared some sympathy for the District’s lack of voting congressional representation, though he said “constitutional issues” complicate a solution. “[D.C. residents] should have a role” in the federal government, Johnson said. “They should have an active role. They should have a say; they should be represented. Does that end up being statehood? I don’t think I could adequately make the argument in light of the Constitution.”

All in all, it’s a delectable pitch to city voters — particularly those unhappy with the status quo, who are the target of Johnson’s bread-and-butter pitch: “I just think people are hungry to elect a leader as opposed to the lesser of two evils. In my case, I think that the people that are voting for me are voting for me, they’re not voting for the lesser of any evil. … I’m just asking people to check it out.”

Beating Obama here, of course, is hopeless. But does Johnson have a shot at second place?

No third-party or independent presidential candidate has come particularly close to beating the second-place Republican since D.C. was handed electoral votes in 1961. In 1980, John B. Anderson won 9 percent to Ronald Reagan’s 13 percent. In 1992, H. Ross Perot earned 4 percent to Republican George H.W. Bush’s 9 percent. In 2000, Ralph Nader took 5 percent to George W. Bush’s 9 percent.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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