In 2012, Johnson won 1,275,923 votes for president, the highest overall vote total in the party's 40-year history. Yet while Johnson had long been a dream candidate for Libertarians, dating back to his early embrace of decriminalized marijuana, he only made the run after a marginalized and disappointing GOP primary campaign. Johnson was kept out of most televised debates, and "liberty movement" voters largely swung behind the campaign of then-Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
"When I announced four years ago, I was two years into being bloodied," said Johnson. "It appeared as though the blood coming out of my head was not a good thing. The strategy was not to be outworked, and I wasn’t, but it seemed like a lot of what I was doing -- maybe 90 percent -- was wasted time. When I announced four years ago we spent $10,000 on a venue to declare my intention to run. It was a great event, and hundreds of people showed up, but this time I'm going to say it on Fox News for free."
Johnson was guardedly optimistic about his ongoing lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates, joined by the Green Party's 2012 presidential candidate Jill Stein. That, he said, could give the campaign historic exposure. And the waning Republican presidential campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has thus far failed to unite his father's base, seemed to offer a new opening for a libertarian.
"There’s no place for someone who’s a fiscal conservative and a social liberal in either party," said Johnson. "You could argue that Rand Paul has moved to this very conservative position to try and get to the nomination, but having spent so much time in New Hampshire and Iowa I’ve come face to face with the sort of people who are supporting Trump. I think a third of the voters you come in contact with believe that Mexican immigration is the biggest threat to America. And Rand Paul has bought into that. Rand Paul has given up a lot of what people thought was making him unique. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but I feel I understand the new dynamic at play."
Johnson, a teetotaler who has left a role at a recreational marijuana company to make the new run, did not actually expect that the rising acceptance of the drug would help him. "We did so many events with that community in 2012, and there was no help at all," he said. What could help: A general election between two unusually disliked major party candidates.
"I think a lot of folks were stuck with Obama because they did not want Romney elected," Johnson said. "Hillary is a known quantity who's not going to win all of those voters. And if Trump's the Republican nominee, really a large number of people will want an alternative."