Gary Johnson Is Not Worth Any Liberal’s Protest Vote

He’s a free-market ideologue who would work to undermine large pieces of the left’s program.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson talks to a crowd of supporters at a rally on August 6, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson talks to a crowd of supporters at a rally on Aug. 6, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

George Frey/Getty Images

Do the youngs know anything about Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for president? Recent polls suggest that a good number of them sure seem to like him, or at least consider him a worthy receptacle for a protest vote.

And at first glance, it’s not hard to see why. Johnson’s fun. He’s a fun, funny dude. I personally liked him when he was asked about Aleppo and was all, What in the hell are you even talking about? Ha! The exposure probably made it a net-plus for him in the end. He likes #extreme outdoor sports and thinks weed is great. He mostly supports abortion rights, LGBT rights, and rolling back America’s global military footprint. He has a responsible adult politician as his running mate. And he’s real. America’s young people, we’re constantly told, value honesty and authenticity. They certainly see Hillary Clinton as inauthentic and dishonest, while Donald Trump, on the other end, is a walking reminder of the wisdom of employing scripts, political calculation, and simple discretion as bulwarks against unleashing one’s full self to the public. Gary Johnson? He’s just Gary Johnson.

There’s a lot more to Gary Johnson, though, that these young, liberal voters may want to consider before pulling the lever.

First, the polls: In the 2012 election, President Obama won 18- to 29-year-olds by 23 percentage points, 60 to 37 percent, according to exit polls. That was a decline from 2008, when he carried the same cohort by 34 percentage points, but in the same ballpark. The breakdown of the 2016 electorate looks to be roughly the same in some areas—Hispanics, blacks, and Asian Americans are breaking lopsidedly for Clinton, while white men are firmly in Trump’s camp—though Clinton is making big gains in college-educated whites, while Trump crushes her in whites without a college degree. But among young voters this cycle, according to recent polls, Clinton is struggling to match those in Obama’s two victories.

It’s not that young voters are going to Donald Trump. He properly repels them. A decent number are going to Green Party candidate Jill Stein, but she’s not the major beneficiary, either. It’s Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, who’s not only picking up a huge share of young voters, but is actually neck-and-neck with Clinton among them.

In the Quinnipiac national poll released Wednesday, Clinton leads Trump among voters ages 18 to 34 by a 21-point margin, 55 to 34 percent. This is in the head-to-head poll, though, where Clinton’s overall lead is 5 percentage points. In the four-way poll, Clinton’s overall lead over Trump drops to 2 percentage points—and her support among 18- to 34-year-olds collapses by 24 percentage points, to 31 percent. Trump’s support among the youngs falls a more modest 8 percentage points, to 26 percent. And sitting right there in the middle is Johnson, earning 29 percent of 18- to 34-years-olds. Stein, meanwhile, comes in fourth with a not-insignificant 15 percent of the 18-to-34 crowd.

The story’s the same in Thursday’s fresh new New York Times/CBS News national poll, in which Clinton and Trump are tied at 42 percent apiece in a four-way race. “The third-party candidates draw their strongest support from younger voters,” the Times writes. “Twenty-six percent of voters ages 18 to 29 say they plan to vote for Mr. Johnson, and another 10 percent back Ms. Stein. A little more than one in five political independents say they will vote for one of the third-party candidates.”

Two-way polling is useful as a measure of what would happen if those voters dabbling with third-party candidates ultimately fall in line behind a major-party candidate by election day, as they typically do. But 46 states are going to feature four-way races on the ballot—Libertarians will make all 50 ballots, while Greens will make 46—and support for minor-party candidates has shown no signs of ebbing the way it usually does by now. That makes sense in a race with two historically disliked major-party candidates. What’s unusual, though, is that the young, liberal voters more aligned with Clinton are falling for Johnson.

That’s strange, because aside from a few issues, he is a small-government, free-market ideologue.

When Johnson ran for president in 2012, he proposed a 43 percent, across-the-board, single-year federal spending cut, the worst idea proposed by any candidate running for president that year. Even the most ardent balanced-budget fetishists propose doing so over the course of five or 10 years. Johnson’s goal is to do it in one fiscal year, indiscriminately. The single-year spending cut he’s proposing in this year’s run is around 20 percent, in line with lower annual deficit projections. A 20 percent single-year cut in federal spending would still be an absolute disaster—and yes, he would bring the budget into balance entirely through spending cuts, as he’s barred any tax increases. (Consider, too, what it would mean in the likely event of a recession to have a president who will refuse to enact anything but a balanced budget.) His tax reform plan, meanwhile, is much like Mike Huckabee’s beloved Fair Tax: replace the income tax and payroll taxes with a consumption tax. This would sharply reduce revenue and make the tax code more regressive— “simplify” it, as they like to say. Since we’re talking about young voters here, too, don’t ask Johnson for much help on college tuition. Same goes for your union drive.

One response of liberals who look fondly on Johnson goes something like this: Well, there’s no way Congress would allow him to implement his fiscal plans, so vote for him for his foreign policy, over which he has more latitude.

Johnson would certainly be loath to launch new overseas wars—although, as Obama has shown, it’s not easy to entirely resist the Pentagon, CIA, congressional hawks, and the entirety of D.C. foreign-policy groupthink once you’re in office.

But the idea that Congress wouldn’t allow him to implement his fiscal plans seems only half true, and not for the policy priorities that young liberal voters would consider the good half.

Republicans will hold the House in November, and their chances of retaining Senate control are improving by the day. (And in any case, if they were to lose the Senate in 2016, they’d probably pick it back up in 2018.) Which parts of Johnson’s agenda get through a Republican Congress? Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid would would seem to be on the agenda. Johnson, who believes “the government should not be involved in health care,” would also cheerily sign on to a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and his replacement would not be a single-payer health system. Already-cut discretionary spending programs would learn a new meaning of cut.

Congressional Republicans (and plenty of Democrats), meanwhile, would look much less kindly upon Pentagon spending cuts, of either bases or plants in their own districts or bases abroad. Relying on Senate Democrats to block all of this with the filibuster both assumes that the legislative filibuster in its present state is long for this world and ignores how much deficit reduction can be achieved through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process.

Johnson supports criminal justice reform, mainly by curtailing the war on drugs. Like a lot of politicians who had their heyday in the ’90s, Johnson has undergone a transformation on this issue. I can believe that much of the conversion is genuine and the regret is real. But it’s worth noting, for example, that during his 1998 campaign for governor of New Mexico, he ran tough-on-crime ads promising to make criminals serve “every lousy second” of their terms. This approach mingled with his free-market absolutism to bring about a governorship that was all too friendly to the private prison industry, a position he still defends.

On net, from the perspective of the consensus, young, liberal voter, Johnson over Clinton means a marginally slimmer chance of a hypothetical ground war that Clinton—though more hawkish by instinct—has shown no interest in pursuing. More substantively, he would be more likely to curtail the use of drone strikes overseas. Clinton over Johnson, on net, means an entire fiscal, economic, and regulatory agenda that—while stymied in Congress in terms of large-scale expansions—would at least prevent things from getting actively, aggressively worse. Under Johnson, rich people would be richer, poor people would be poorer, and sick people would be sicker. Our only hope would be that the country could get too baked to notice.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.