PASADENA, CALIFORNIA — Bernie Sanders has admitted he is not going to be the Democratic nominee for president, but his millions of supporters are still going through a very public and painful soul-searching as they survey the choices before them. The vast majority are backing presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Some are clinging to the extremely unlikely hope that hundreds of Democratic delegates will switch their allegiance to Sanders over the next month. A dwindling number are pledging to vote for Donald Trump, who has been actively courting their votes. And some are looking for a third-party candidate who aligns with their values.
Sensing an opening, former New Mexico Governor and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson is making the case that he is their next-best option.
In an interview with ThinkProgress at California’s annual nerdy Politicon festival, Johnson said Sanders supporters should “take a closer look” at his campaign. “Objectively, if they go online and take the ‘I Side With’ quiz, they should have the same experience I did, which is, next to myself, I side with Bernie,” he said. “About three quarters of what he says, I side with.”
About three quarters of what [Bernie Sanders] says, I side with.
In a year where the presumptive nominees of the Democrats and the GOP are both deeply unpopular, Johnson has moved from relative obscurity to a potential game changer. He is polling between 9 and 12 percent nationally, and seems to be drawing more votes away from Trump than from Clinton.
Johnson told ThinkProgress he would be honored to play the role of the spoiler in the 2016 race. “I’ll take it as a badge of honor,” he said. “I want to spoil the party for both sides. It needs spoiling.”
In his speech at Politicon — to a mostly young, progressive audience, many of them sporting Bernie swag — Johnson outlined all the policy areas where he and Sanders supporters find common ground: legalizing marijuana, keeping the government’s nose out of the private business of same-sex marriage and abortion, abolishing the death penalty, curbing military interventions overseas, and respecting privacy and civil liberties here at home.
“The rub on Libertarians is that we’re all about survival of the fittest and no government,” Johnson told ThinkProgress. “But I do think government has a role. I mean, I served two terms in a heavily Democratic state.”
Johnson went on to lay out a number of policies most Sanders supporters are certain to reject: scrapping the minimum wage, raising the retirement age, getting rid of most corporate taxes, and taking a Paul Ryan-sized sledgehammer to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — calling those support programs a “train wreck.” These hardline economic stances recently earned Johnson praise from the Wall Street Journal, whose editors dubbed him an “honorable alternative” to Trump.
Those policies alone may be enough to turn Sanders supporters off Johnson’s campaign. Yet the chasm between Libertarians and “Berniecrats” goes far beyond policy; it’s a fundamental disagreement about the role of government. Since the inception of his presidential campaign, and throughout his decades in elected office, Sanders has preached the power of collective government action to curb the excesses of corporations and wealthy individuals and support students, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. In Johnson’s world, corporations and the wealthy would essentially have free rein to pollute the environment, exploit workers, or act for the greater good.
A handful of Libertarian diehards at Politicon cheered Johnson’s promises, chanting “Ga-ry! Ga-ry!” as he left the stage. Some assured ThinkProgress that they are in a great position to win over legions of disappointed Sanders supporters who are searching for a candidate they can stomach. But others, like Joshua Glawson with the Libertarian Party of Pasadena, aren’t so sure.
“We see the same problems with society,” Glawson said, adjusting the Revolution-era wig and tricorner hat he had worn to the event, “but Bernie Sanders supporters say the government should be intervening and saying what gets done and doesn’t get done. That’s a direct violation of the Constitution and of nature itself.”
Glawson, a law student, cited two examples: living wages and environmental regulations. While he said he agrees with Sanders supporters that everyone deserves a fair wage and clean air and water, he does not believe the government should have the power to enforce either.
“Bernie Sanders seems like a good and sincere individual, but if we give him all that power, who is to say that the next president is a good, genuine person?” he asked. “What if they’re an insane person? So it’s better to make as minimal a government as possible.”
We both have a righteous, non-corporate message.
Sanders supporters at the event agreed that ideological gap between them and Libertarians may be too wide to cross.
“I don’t see Bernie people being persuaded,” said 23-year-old Lauren Boushey, an elected delegate to the Democratic National Convention. “We do have those funny, nuanced similarities, and we both have a righteous, non-corporate message, but when it comes to specific policy measures, like guns or climate, there is a huge difference.”
Boushey cited the Horseshoe Effect — the idea that those on the far left and the far right have more in common than they have with squishy moderates.
“We both hang out at the top of the horseshoe, but the thing about the horseshoe is that there’s still a lot of space there,” she said.
Even Sanders supporters considering candidates outside the Democratic Party told ThinkProgress they are unlikely to back Johnson.
“I could almost vote for a moderate libertarian, but the deregulation is just not a good thing to be doing right now,” said California voter Tony Valentino. “[Gary Johnson] might get a few [Bernie people], but anybody who would go to him might go to Trump, just as a protest vote.”
Both Valentino and his partner, Maye Osborne, said they are likely to vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein in the general election.
“The people I’ve been talking to don’t want to reward Hillary Clinton for what she did to Bernie during the primary, or what the party did,” said Osborne.
Valentino agreed, and admitted his desire to punish the Democrats almost led him to vote for the Republican nominee.
“I was thinking about Trump as a ‘fuck you’ vote,” he said. “But it’s his anti-environmental stance that really makes me nervous.”
Donald Trump has also attempted to court Sanders supporters, by praising Sanders in his speeches, noting some areas of policy agreement, and blasting the DNC for “rigging” the primary against him. On Tuesday, he went after Hillary Clinton for her past support of the Trans-Pacific Partnernship — a proposed free trade deal with a dozen nations that she now opposes. The negative impact of free trade deals on U.S. workers has been a core theme of Sanders’ campaign from its inception.
Trump’s ex-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski confirmed to CNN that they are aiming to woo Sanders backers, but there is little evidence of success. A new poll released this week shows support for Trump among Sanders supporters plummeting. In May, an estimated 20 percent of Sanders backers expressed a willingness to support Trump. By June, it had dropped to just 8 percent. Gary Johnson was not included by name in the poll, but only 2 percent of respondents said they would vote for a third-party candidate in the general election.
Though Sanders has stayed publicly critical of Clinton, and has not yet urged his supporters to back her, he has gone all in against Donald Trump, calling him “incredibly dangerous,” an “opportunist” and an “egomaniac.”
Sanders has yet to reveal what he thinks of Gary Johnson.