Gary Johnson, Bill Weld Make Gains in Center, Not So Much on Right

I wrote a piece last week for Reason on how the Gary Johnson and Bill Weld campaign seems to be staking out a position I called libertarian centrism – offering classical liberalism as a calm middle path between the spite and faction of left and right. Several polls find Johnson and Weld drawing support about evenly from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, in contrast to the expectation in some quarters that as former Republican governors they’d tap more into a GOP voter base. An Economist/YouGov poll (see p. 16) found that Johnson was drawing better numbers from self-identified moderate voters (at 11 percent) than from self-identified conservatives (at 7 percent). In recent weeks, even as the Libertarian Party candidates have met with a mostly frosty reception among big-name conservative politicos, they’ve been spoken of favorably by a number of moderate or pragmatist Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and most recently Maine Senator Susan Collins. 

For more on why centrists might like the Libertarian ticket, go read that piece. Brian Doherty, also at Reason, has been looking at a related issue: why have conservatives thus far proved so cool toward Johnson and Weld? Is it the ticket’s scattered, undeniable lapses from ideological correctness? Or its utter refusal to engage in the expected team signaling?

Ask strong conservatives what rankles most about the Johnson/Weld ticket, and you’ll almost certainly hear about how they’re no better than Hillary Clinton on the cake-baking issue – should anti-discrimination law explicitly include exemptions for religious conscience? – and probably also the gun issue, where Weld (though not Johnson) still sometimes shows his Massachusetts roots. 

On both of these issues, I’m in much the same position as Brian Doherty. I wish Johnson could outline a critique of private anti-discrimination laws and was better disposed toward religious-conscience exemptions to them, and I wish Bill Weld were more up to speed about gun issues and more appreciative of how firearms regulation tends to backfire. Still, their positions would not leave them wildly out of step even among median Republican voters, let alone independents. Johnson’s position that the law can properly make a merchant sell you a cake from a display shelf, but not decorate it for you, looks like a fairly standard Republican-governor position at this point in American history. Weld’s melange of views on guns – in his opinion, the Supreme Court was right to recognize an individual right to bear arms in Heller, but he hasn’t abandoned his interest in so-called reasonable regulation consistent with that – is not so far from that expressed by Justice Antonin Scalia, except that while Scalia is remembered for saying “A, but also B,” Weld comes off more as “B, but also A.”

The atmospherics, however, are unmistakable. However strong and principled they may be on spending, taxes, regulation, school choice, subsidies, or a hundred other issues where conservatives and libertarians often see eye to eye, Johnson and Weld keep going out of their way to flip off the organized conservative movement and send it the message: We’re not on your team. And this year, above others, should teach us that team loyalty, group touchiness, and friend-foe identification are powerful forces in politics. 

Someone is responding to the message, or else the numbers for Johnson and Weld would not be creeping upward in many polls, past 8 and 9 to 10 and 11 percent, toward the magic 15 percent mark. That someone doesn’t yet include organized conservatives. But there’s still time for them to take a second look.