Hundreds of people stood outside in the rain Thursday and cheered at the notion that Americans would elect neither a Democrat nor a Republican to be their next president.
They gathered in front of the State House to see Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson, but the crowd was also a reflection of the historic unpopularity of the major parties’ candidates. The largest sign in view stated the sentiment plainly: “Both parties suck.”
Stepping into that atmosphere, Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, and his running mate, Bill Weld, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, sought to dispel the idea that a vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is cast into oblivion.
“People say, ‘Isn’t a vote for a third party a wasted vote?’ It’s really not if the so-called third party is the one you agree with,” Weld said. “In fact, voting for someone you don’t agree with, that’s a wasted vote.”
Johnson acknowledged that he can’t win the presidency if he’s not invited to the debates, but he said the campaign’s reach has grown dramatically as more people have been introduced to his “fiscally conservative and socially inclusive” brand of politics.
The campaign will use the $2.9 million it reported raising online over the first two weeks of August to buy advertisements and travel to swing states in an effort to boost its recognition. Johnson said 70 percent of Americans don’t know who he is, and yet in a handful of polls, he’s broken the 15 percent threshold that’s required to qualify for the debates, he said.
Johnson stepped onto Main Street about 5:10 p.m. after meeting with the news media in an Eagle Square office. Realizing he had 20 minutes to spare before his rally began across the street, he sat down alone on one of the new, red benches downtown, pulled out his phone and crossed his left leg over his right knee, showing off the black Nike running sneakers that reveal his hobby as an endurance athlete.
Walking along Park Street, Johnson stopped to speak with three of his supporters, James and Stephanie Moulton of Hillsboro and their 2½-year-old daughter, Evelyn. James Moulton said Evelyn was running around the house talking about Johnson before they left, but she clammed up when face to face.
Moulton, 27, said he’s a supporter of the “liberty movement” who pulled for Ron Paul in previous elections. He said he’s happy that Johnson came by “to show people we have a third option, and it’s more on the side of having choices in your life, instead of having government make them for you.”
He’s hoping Johnson’s poll numbers will climb enough that he’s allowed to debate.
“The thing that sucks, too, is that only 9 percent of Americans voted in Trump and Clinton, and (Johnson) needs 15 percent to get into the debates,” he said.
Others among the rally’s attendees weren’t supporting Johnson so much as opposing Clinton and Trump. Peter White, 60, of Nottingham said he’s waiting for the day when all the fringe parties gather together “and say forget Wall Street’s two parties.”
He urged Johnson and Weld to detail a plan to reform the way campaigns are financed, but didn’t get an answer. That’s why he’s leaning toward the Green Party’s candidate, Jill Stein, he said. But White said he doesn’t think enough Americans are actively protesting to make a third-party bid reality – at least not yet.
“Hopefully by 2020, people will have the vision not only to support the best candidate, but they’ll flock to the polls, they’ll protest and they’ll be there to count the votes at the end of it,” he said.
Johnson and Weld promote themselves as two-term Republican governors who were well-liked in Democratic-leaning states. Johnson sells their candidacy as a “two for the price of one” deal, in which the two men will be almost equally influential.
Johnson ran through his stump speech like a list of bullet points: American military interventions have made the world less safe, government regulations get in the way of business, crony capitalism is bad, free markets are good.
He also stressed his abiding policies on abortion and marriage equality that he refers to as “socially inclusive,” which he said means “that we should be able to make choices in our own lives on everything, on everything, unless those choices put other people in harm’s way. That’s when government has a role.”
He criticized Trump’s positions on immigration and building a wall along the border, punctuated by a joke: “Donald Trump watched the Olympics really, really closely to determine how high the Mexican pole vaulters can go.”
Johnson said the partisan political climate in the country will only be made worse if Clinton or Trump is elected, adding, “the third option at least has the hope of succeeding.”
“Is this the craziest election that you’ve ever seen? And how crazy is it?” Johnson asked in introducing himself to the crowd. “I’m going to be the next president of the United States.”
(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)