The Commission on Presidential Debates, which announced last week that only the Democratic and Republican candidates qualified for the first round of televised face-offs, is tucked into a pleasant but anonymous corner of northwest Washington. At noon Wednesday, the sidewalk outside the CPD was full of protesters, bearing signs and giant face masks in support of Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson. Polling stronger than any third-party contender since 1996, Johnson had missed the 15 percent polling threshold, and there was no recourse before the first debate on Sept. 26.
The protesters, at least 150 of them, had no plan except for shaming. Alex Graham, who had driven from Pittsburgh to organize the rally, said there was no interest in blocking the CPD entrance or rushing inside. "We don't want to do civil disobedience," she explained, as a cop asked her again how long she intended the protest to go. (Three hours.)
Johnson himself was not really about civil disobedience. As in 2012, Green Party candidate Jill Stein was planning to get arrested at the debate site, at Hofstra University. Johnson would make no such attempt, though his media-heavy schedule might bring him to the massed TV cameras on campus. Johnson is also uninterested in an "undercard" debate like the one proposed by Evan McMullin, an independent candidate running as a center-right alternative to Trump, and complicating Johnson's hope of a breakthrough in Utah.
Liz Mair, an anti-Trump Republican strategist now affiliated with Republicans for Johnson-Weld, told protesters that the Libertarian was the best candidate to break through the major-party stranglehold.
"At some point in the next five to 10 years, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is going to be wearing an orange jumpsuit," Mair said. "Simple fact. They have very, very weak morals, and they don't have the right views as to what our country should be standing for."
Other speakers focused on their personal discovery of Johnson and how up to 30 percent of millennials told pollsters that they supported him. Eventually, they were joined by Johnson himself.
"You so honor me," Johnson said. "Thank you all so much. I found out, just the other day, that Ross Perot was polling less than we are now when he was allowed into the first debate. So this really is so important."
As supporters crowded around him, Johnson made the argument about the need for a third party that had gotten a hearing on cable news but none at the CPD. "Democrats, what, 26 percent?" he said. "Republicans, what, 28 percent? The rest of the population is independent, and where is their representation?"
"Let Gary debate!" chanted the supporters. "Let Gary in!"
Johnson, who (with Stein) still hopes that a lawsuit or a Clinton/Trump implosion might force him into later debates, had nothing else to say. "I've got several interviews to go to," he said, slowing only to take some photos.