June 22, 2016 3:03PM

Jesse Ventura and Gary Johnson

[Note: Normally I have the good sense to keep my writing focused on trade policy topics. This blogpost is an exception. It would not be wise to place much confidence in my abilities as a political analyst. However, I lived in Minnesota and was politically active during the 1998 gubernatorial election. That experience left me with impressions that are shared below.]

Jesse Ventura is an intriguing individual. In 1998 he was nominated by the Reform Party of Minnesota as their candidate for governor. Among his several prior careers were: Navy special‐​forces diver; professional wrestler; screen actor; radio and TV personality; and mayor of Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. He has a disdain for “politics as usual,” especially when wrangling between Democrats and Republicans results in poor use of taxpayer funds. He has an outsized personality, a robust and brash sense humor, and enjoys the limelight. He also looks great in a feather boa.

Ventura described himself as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” a straightforward expression of his libertarian philosophy. He had considerable interest in policy issues, more than is the case for some candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign. His fiscal priorities included reforms in sales, property, and income taxes. On social issues, he supported the right for gays to serve in the military and to marry. He was quite open about not having all the answers, readily admitting that he hadn’t formed opinions on every aspect of state policy.

In sharp contrast to the likely Democratic and Republican nominees in the 2016 presidential race, Ventura ran against solid, mainstream nominees from both those parties. Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III, Minnesota’s attorney general and son of the former U.S. senator and vice president, was the Democratic‐​Farmer‐​Labor (DFL) choice. Norm Coleman, well regarded for his service as mayor of St. Paul, was selected by the Republicans. Neither of them had particularly high negative ratings. A poll conducted in late October 1998 showed 33 percent with an unfavorable view of Humphrey, and 26 percent taking a dim view of Coleman. Ventura’s unfavorable rating was 21 percent. (Such ratings would be envied by today’s major‐​party presidential candidates, both of whom are viewed negatively by some 50–60 percent of recent poll respondents.)

A June 1998 poll commissioned by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), KARE 11 TV, and the Pioneer Press asked respondents for whom they likely would vote. The results:

  • Humphrey 46 %
  • Coleman 30 %
  • Ventura 7 %
  • Undecided 17 %

In contrast to Ventura’s 7 percent number from June 1998, recent polling shows Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson receiving support of 11–12 percent for his 2016 presidential bid. So Johnson’s candidacy as of June is doing relatively better than Ventura’s did.

A similar MPR/​KARE/​Pioneer Press poll conducted in late October, shortly before the election, showed:

  • Humphrey 34 %
  • Coleman 33 %
  • Ventura 23 %
  • Undecided 10 %

Ventura had increased his support by 16 percentage points, mostly coming at the expense of Humphrey (decline of 12 points). Coleman gained 3 points.

The final results on Election Day, Nov. 3, 1998, were:

  • Ventura 37 %
  • Coleman 34 %
  • Humphrey 28 % 

Ventura gained 14 percentage points of support during the final ten days of the campaign to win election as the 38th governor of Minnesota. This swing was aided by his performance in the debate on Oct. 24, along with creative advertising that featured a Jesse Ventura action figure and Ventura singing a campaign song to the theme from “Shaft.”

Ventura’s victory was remarkable. As a keen observer of Minnesota politics that summer and fall, I confess to having been dumbfounded. If I had been asked in June 1998 whether there was any chance Ventura actually would win the race, I simply would have said it was impossible. The real question was how much support his unconventional – albeit enjoyable – campaign would draw from Humphrey and Coleman. But Ventura did win, and he earned it. He presented ideas and attitude that were more engaging than those being offered by two other credible candidates.

Fast forward to 2016. Gary Johnson definitely is not a clone of Jesse Ventura. Johnson was a successful businessman who served two terms as a Republican governor of New Mexico. He is notably less flamboyant than Ventura, but probably more accustomed to explaining libertarian concepts to a broad audience. It’s clear that the odds are against an outright win by Johnson. Having lived through an “impossible” victory, though, I’d rate Johnson’s prospects as better than that – perhaps “highly improbable” would be the right term. 

Of course, the electoral college may make it feasible for Johnson to have a very meaningful effect on the outcome of the election, even if he doesn’t garner the most votes nationwide. Consider the hypothetical situation in which he wins his home state of New Mexico, which has five electoral votes. If the major party candidates split the remaining electors evenly, no one would receive the 270 votes needed for election. In that scenario, the outcome would be decided by state delegations in the House of Representatives. 

Ventura and Johnson know each other. Ventura endorsed Johnson’s candidacy when he ran for the White House as the Libertarian nominee in 2012, and has encouraged people to vote for him again this year. Ventura has a substantial following across the country, so may be in a position to take other steps on behalf of the Johnson campaign. Who knows? Perhaps that might include coaching him on proper use of a feather boa.

It should be an interesting campaign.

Daniel R. Pearson is a senior fellow in the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.