I long ago signed up for the Johnson campaign's Facebook feed and e-mails, and curiously, nearly all of them seemed tin-eared and off-note, to be participating in a barely relevant conversation. Many had a content-free student-government-elections vibe, essentially, "Why not try a third party?" pointlessly saying a two-party system wasn't fair, etc. The ones that attacked Trump and Clinton just repeated the same old accusations people have already heard a million times, and in Hillary's case, the non-ideological "Crooked Hillary" stuff or the left-wing attack on her as an insider. I can't recall ever seeing an attack on her far-left, progressive-elitist IDEOLOGY, including her hostility to the traditional American libertarian ideals shared by many conservatives, moderates, and even many liberals (anyone remember Civil Libertarians?).
Professor and former Federal Election Commissioner Brad Smith discussed this in depth in a brilliant public post on Facebook. My only quibbles with him are:
- Posing as the sane moderate isn't incompatible with being the sensible, electable conservative alternative, the leader of the remainder of a split Republican party. Doing a better job at both of those would have made him the natural candidate for "Never Trump" Republicans.
- There's much more to be said, especially this year, for libertarianism as the real moderation. It doesn't erase, but defuses and declaws, most cultural and religious differences. The main theme of my libertarian folk song (temporary working titles: "Goons & Droogs" or "Johnson We Hardly Mentioned Ye.")
I think basically the strategy was to try to present themselves as the "moderate, sane alternative," and to appeal to millenials, who are more likely to pull the third party lever. The hope was to peel off a bit from the left, and a bit from the right, and get into the debates with 15%. To do this they heavily emphasized social issues, to the point of abandoning tradition libertarian and Libertarian positions, such as supporting freedom of association, and viewing private anti-discrimination laws as a rare exception to be used only in rare situations. Instead, they aggressively attacked the idea that religious people (or others) should be free not to provide services for same sex marriages, etc.. They devoted considerable effort to courting Clinton and Sanders voters. They also talked quite a bit about foreign policy, a very unwise decision given Johnson's apparent lack of prep there, but they wanted to court anti-war voters.
In my view, the only real hope for a third party is always to become viewed as the alternative to one of the major parties. Otherwise, "don't waste your vote" mentality kicks in (and it is a logical mentality), and third party support always drifts away.
Their smart play, therefore, would have been not to campaign as the moderate alternative to Corrupt Hillary and Crazy Donald, but as the Republican alternative to Trump, much as Evan McMullen has done in his 1 state campaign in Utah. As two former GOP governors, this would have made sense and had some credibility. Further, Republicans who don't like Trump tend to not like him because he is not libertarian enough (this is not true of the neocons, but it is true of the free traders, the pro-immigration voters, and much of the limited government crowd. Liberals dissatisfied with Hillary tend not to like her because she's not statist enough--the Bernie voters. There's really no room to her left on the social issues that Johnson/Weld wanted to emphasize, and on economics, their libertarian views are as much or more a turnoff to the Sanders/Warren left as Hillary's cronyism.
Rather than Weld citing Breyer as a great Supreme Court justice, they should have been on one page that they would support people like Thomas, who is very popular with Republicans and probably the most libertarian justice on the Court. They should have finessed abortion through a federalism argument and aggressively defending the Hyde Amendment and attacking efforts to fund Planned Parenthood (a good libertarian position, defunding most any private group), require employers to provide particular coverages in health plans, or require individuals to perform non-essential services (the traditional libertarian position). Most importantly, they should have pounded on regulation and the growth of government and executive power. The idea would be to become (as McMullen has become in Utah) a credible alternative for conservative voters. As we see with McMullen, his support is not fading in Utah in part because he is seen as an electable alternative to Clinton.
Would such a strategy have worked? Probably not. Always a longshot, right? But I think they played a strategy to maximize their minimum, when this was the election for the LP to try to maximize its maximum.
Or as Matthew Finn put it in a comment:
He misidentified which demographic his campaign should've been targeting. Trump is enormously unpopular with small government conservatives. These voters would've been ripe for picking. Yet Johnson seemed to snub them in favor of running a campaign targeted at youthful millennial voters and, oddly enough, the Sanders sect of the Democratic Party (who are, by nature, ideologically opposite of Johnson). In doing so, he created an image (and remember, perception is truth in politics), of a half-baked, middle aged stoner who is treating running for president with the same amount of seriousness that he would treat running a fantasy football league. That alienated a good portion of his ideal demographic (small government conservatives) who tend to be older and, to an extent, value based voters. In short, rather than painting himself as a sensible conservative alternative to Trump, he painted himself as a wacky caricature and in doing so alienated the voters who could have actually put him in the national discussion.