One small problem: Johnson is not the Libertarian Party’s nominee for 2016. Not yet. When the party meets at the end of the month, in Orlando, its hundreds of delegates will not be bound to any candidate. And Johnson has been under assault, for months, by two rivals who say he would blow the election.
“It’s the most negative race of my career, by far,” said Johnson in an interview this week, at a Washington cafe that sells candidate-themed drinks. (He ordered the caramel-flavored Ben Carson latte.) “This is very personal, and I don’t get it. My defense is: None of it is being thrown back at them. You want to talk about the issues? Then fine, fine. But holy cow! It’s silly, just silly.”
As the Libertarian Party faces perhaps the biggest opening of its 40-year history, it’s hosting a contest between the amiable left-libertarian Johnson, the youthful party activist Austin Petersen, and the larger-than-life anti-virus pioneer John McAfee. Johnson’s 2012 performance — a record 1.3 million votes for the party — has been dismissed by challengers who think he’s too compromised or easygoing to seize the moment.
“I like Gary Johnson as a person,” said McAfee in a phone interview from his well-guarded Tennessee home. “I do not see how his lackluster personality can help the Libertarian Party any more than it already has.”
“Governor Johnson gets most of his money from special interests and the marijuana industry,” said Petersen, as he drove to western Pennsylvania for a fundraiser. “I’m trying to create a grown-up movement.”
Bare-knuckled, chair-throwing nomination fights are not new for the Libertarian Party. Its most famous nominee for president, former Texas representative Ron Paul, had to fight past a left-libertarian challenge by Native American rights activist Russell Means. Its 2008 convention battle saw former Georgia representative Bob Barr, a brief party convert, take six ballots to put away a little-known biochemist.
The Libertarian nomination seems even more valuable now, with a March poll by Monmouth University putting Johnson — by far the best-known candidate — at 11 percent in a race with Clinton and Trump. Johnson, as the only candidate to serve in elected office, says he could build on that and crack the 15 percent threshold for entering the presidential debates. McAfee and Petersen are convinced that he would waste it. This is no year for an "experienced" candidate, much less one who spent the past few years in the edible marijuana business.
“I know he’s running around saying he is the Libertarian Party,” said McAfee. “If he believes I will walk away, he is deluding himself, and he has not Googled me. If you think America wants a politician in this race, then you have managed somehow to ignore Donald Trump.”
McAfee came to the presidential race as a sort of cult figure in tech. In the 1990s he sold his stake in the anti-virus company he founded, and later moved to Belize. He re-entered the spotlight in 2012, when that country’s government sought him on weapon and murder charges, and McAfee fled the country, proclaiming his innocence and earning a strange celebrity. (A 2013 video of him reading hate mail about his anti-virus program while being stripped and fondled by women has more than 6 million views.)
In December 2015, he joined the Libertarian race for president, with a quasi-utopian platform that seemed to sync with the party’s needs and a seemingly warm relationship with Johnson. It curdled. By April, McAfee was blaming Johnson’s allies for slights against his reputation, and saying he would quit the party if the former governor won.
“The fact of the matter is that I was never charged with anything, and it’s well known that Belize is one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” said McAfee. “I just happened to bring that into the light, and the Sinaloa Cartel didn’t like that.
"What else? Okay: I am married to an ex-prostitute. And until I was 38 years old, I took more drugs than any human on the planet. But I’m 70. Good lord, cut me some slack.”
McAfee has no similar gripes with Petersen, the youngest of the trio — just 35 —with the most media savvy and clearest theory of the election. Petersen got his start in politics with the 2008 Ron Paul campaign, building a New York affiliate with tactics such as walking through subway cars and reading Paul’s speeches out loud.
When Paul’s campaign ended, Petersen stayed with the cause, working inside the Libertarian Party and helping launch Andrew Napolitano’s show on the Fox Business Network. In his spare time, Petersen became a regular libertarian voice on any show that needed one, sparring with the progressive talker Thom Hartmann, honing his patter on podcasts.
“It’s not as if I’ve been a media personality, but I’ve worked for one of the most beloved icons in the liberty movement,” said Petersen. “I was the architect of his rise.”
As a candidate, Petersen has combined online omnipresence – with thanks to his “freedom ninjas” and their proliferating websites – with ideological rigor and buttery rhetorical skill. Where Johnson riffs and meanders, Petersen dispenses bon mots, imagining a future “where gay married couples can defend their marijuana fields with automatic weapons.”
“I was born in Independence [Missouri], raised on a horse farm near Peculiar, just a short drive from a town called Liberty,” Petersen said at the start of a party debate in New York. “I'm not saying I'm the chosen one, but I'm kind of implying it there, right?
At the highest-profile moment of the race so far, a debate on Fox Business, Petersen attempted to trip up Johnson with libertarian logic puzzles. His supporters have widely circulated the resulting videos, in which Petersen’s bumper sticker-perfect answers run against Johnson’s attempts to talk through the issues.
“Should a Jewish baker be required to bake a Nazi wedding cake?” asked Petersen in a discussion about religious liberty.
“That would be my contention,” said Johnson, after moderator John Stossel repeated the question. “How about the utility that is privately owned, and because it’s the only market where I can buy my electricity, they’re gonna cut me off?"
“This betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the free market,” said Petersen. “The government is not supposed to make us better people.”
Later, Petersen goaded Johnson over a libertarian heresy – questioning whether people adjudicated mentally ill should be allowed to purchase firearms. After saying that Johnson’s position would have allowed the British empire to disarm American revolutionaries, Petersen gently offered a chase for Johnson to go “on the record” and clear it up.
“On the record, Austin?” said a visibly irritated Johnson. “On the record, I have always supported gun rights!”
“Take it easy,” said Petersen. “Don’t act so crazy, or we might take away your guns.”
In an interview this week, Johnson acknowledged that the campaign had been negative and denied that Petersen had gotten under his skin. “I think I do a pretty good job of communicating what it is I want to communicate,” he said. The problem was that he wanted to deal with real-world implications, not theory, on something like guns being denied to dangerous people. “We should absolutely be open to a discussion on how that might get accomplished. And having vetoed as many bills as I’ve vetoed, I’ve not seen any proposals that might preclude me from having a gun for failing some test. So, open to a discussion? Yes!”
Johnson’s pitch to Libertarians is that this approach, while it might not rouse people from their seats, can move the millions of disgruntled 2016 voters to vote for him. McAfee’s pitch is that those voters want an outsider. Petersen’s approach is the most tactical, arguing that the voters most distraught by their choices are pro-life “conservatarians” – and he’s the only one in the field. (McAfee and Johnson are pro-abortion rights.)
Libertarian activists, who've dealt skeptically with people claiming that they could expand the party by adding ex-Republicans, are watching the two approaches play out. Petersen has hop-scotched around conservative radio, arguing that ex-supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) can "continue the revolution" with him. Johnson has focused on mainstream media, as if previewing the attention his campaign could win for the party. During his trip to Washington this week, Johnson had one unproductive meeting with a #NeverTrump activist, ending when there seemed to be no chance at working together. Petersen, while not revealing who he has talked to, says that those voters are ready to jump over, just as long as he wins the nomination.
“Many of the leaders of #NeverTrump have already come out and endorsed us,” said Petersen, pointing to positive mentions on RedState. “We also have more prominent members ready to endorse the campaign if we win. I can’t tell you who. I can tell you, it will be the sort of front-page news that is earth-shattering.”
Johnson, meanwhile, is continuing to campaign like a front-runner without dismissing his opponents. He imagines that Libertarian delegates will come to the same conclusion as him: What would happen if the party’s 2012 nominee, the only governor in the 2016 field, was denied the nomination? Wouldn’t it seem like they’d thrown away their best chance at relevance?
“That’s what I think, but I can’t lose sleep over it,” said Johnson. “I’d only lose sleep if we weren’t working as hard as we can to prevent that.”