Newfound Media Attention Could Catapult Gary Johnson onto Debate Stage - WhoWhatWhy

Newfound Media Attention Could Catapult Gary Johnson onto Debate Stage

The Libertarian Nominee Received Scant Coverage in 2012, What’s Changed?

Gary Johnson
2016 Libertarian candidate for president and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson  Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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Donald Trump relied on free media exposure and widespread frustration with the political establishment to leave his Republican rivals in the dust. Now, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson could use the same blueprint to get onto the debate stage and take votes away from Trump.

During his first run for the White House, in 2012, Johnson — a former Republican governor of New Mexico — faced the overwhelming burden of being starved of meaningful media exposure. But the 2016 cycle appears to have significantly lifted the curse, according to a WhoWhatWhy analysis of 12 major news outlets.

The analysis, which compared June of 2012 with June of 2016 , found a huge increase in the number of stories published with Johnson as the primary focus.

Looking at a dozen major print, digital, and television outlets, we found that stories centered on Johnson jumped from just six in June 2012 to 69 during the same month in 2016.

While it’s true that the digital segment of the media landscape has changed drastically in the last few years, such a dramatic bump in coverage raises the question: is the media’s change of heart due to a flare of public interest in Johnson, is the media hyping that interest to boost its audience or is it trying to make amends for propelling Donald Trump to the head of the GOP field?

Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent for USA Today, referred to the question as “a chicken or the egg problem.”

The most obvious factor behind the jump in third-party coverage, he said, is the lack of an incumbent in the race. Another possible reason: the media’s strong dislike of Donald Trump may be motivating journalists to both play up his negatives and lavish more attention on third-party candidates.

“There is a certain degree of guilt they feel for not covering [Trump] seriously in the primaries and they are out to make amends,” Benedetto said. The media’s unrelenting focus on Trump during this election cycle is a matter of record: so far Trump has received over $2 billion in free media from news outlets — a number dwarfing the other candidates.

Jill Stein

Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presumptive nominee
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Matthew Baum, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, linked the media’s burgeoning interest in Johnson and, to a lesser degree, likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein, to a combination of two factors:

“Dissatisfaction with the major party candidates, combined with general cynicism and low trust in government leading to a rise in anti-establishment populist sentiment,” Baum said.

In poll after poll, voters have expressed strong disapproval of both Hillary Clinton and Trump — at record-breaking levels, in fact.

Benedetto said another possible reason the media is willing to cover Johnson, along with his  running mate, Bill Weld — former Republican governor of Massachusetts — is their status as former governors, which could lend their presidential ticket the legitimacy that many third-party candidates often lack.

Whatever the case, the increase in media attention has paid dividends for third-party candidates. Johnson recently polled as high as 11 percent while Stein has hovered around 5 percent among likely voters.

A look at Google Trends showed that Johnson garnered six times as many Google searches in June 2016 as he did in June 2012. His total for last month was close to his total searches in November 2012, when interest in the imminent presidential race was at its peak.

The same WhoWhatWhy analysis found that Stein also received a significant boost in media coverage in 2016. And Stein’s Google searches soared ten-fold from June 2012 to June 2016.

“There is no doubt that the more media coverage a candidate gets, good and bad, it helps draw public interest and support,” Benedetto said. “We saw that with Trump. He got the lion’s share of the media coverage during the primaries — most of it negative — and he still soared in the polls.”

All of this raises the likelihood that Johnson, and possibly even Stein, might sneak into the debates by achieving the requisite polling numbers. If that occurs, all bets may be off in what has already been a wild election cycle.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) requires that candidates must poll at 15 percent in five national surveys leading up to the scheduled debates to gain a place in the on-air confrontation .

Baum, for one, believes both Johnson and Stein have a chance of meeting this threshold. “It seems possible to me in 2016 because of broad dissatisfaction with the major party candidates. I would not go so far as to say that it is ‘probable’, but it is more likely this year than most prior years.”

Johnson, who is likely to be on the ballot in all 50 states, may be a threat to both major party candidates if he finds his way onto the debate stage. One reason: some polls show Trump doing worse with millennials than Johnson. At the same time Benedetto expects many of Johnson’s messages to resonate with the Sanders bloc — an element that could pull votes away from Clinton in the general election.

Third-party candidates — from Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 to George Wallace in 1968 to Ross Perot in 1992 — have had major impacts on presidential elections.

At the very least, their confidence in what most observers would dismiss as a hopeless cause has more than once shaken up the status quo. Johnson certainly projects the requisite confidence.

He told CNN’s Chris Cuomo in a Libertarian Town Hall event on June 22, “The two-party system is a two-party dinosaur, and they’re about to come in contact with the comet here.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gary Johnson (Gage Skidmore / Flickr  – CC BY-SA 2.0) and chart (Google Trends)

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14 responses to “Newfound Media Attention Could Catapult Gary Johnson onto Debate Stage”

  1. Avatar Britton George says:

    Too bad both are Hillary ringers: Green Party platform is identical to Democrat one, and Johnson supports mandatory vaccines – which is Democrat issue. Johnson also pro-TPP and anti-gun, plus Bill Weld was caught by the NYT praising Hillary, not to mention the Libertarian Party and Greens get lots of airtime on CNN – more than any other TV network.

  2. Avatar Kate says:

    What has changed?… the times, instant access to media, Bernie kicked to the curb by “Her” (and her impeached hubby), and of courseThe Donald. All this contributes to an electorate scratching their heads thinking “Is this the best they can offer?” Gary Johnson is a breath of honest air amidst the muck wrestling candidates. He’s smart, socially liberal, and proven fiscally responsible. He’s easily the best choice. I would love to see someone in the debate who doesn’t have to lie. My hope is that he gets the 15% from three polls that the “powers that be” (who dat?) have set as a requirement. It would help if they routinely included him in the poll choices.

  3. Avatar jmillsintacoma says:

    Polling has often been shown to be quite inaccurate. But, when you poll people on whether they will vote for Hillary or Donald, well, that’s a huge built-in inaccuracy because voters aren’t going to be staring only at those two candidate when the ballot arrives. Seems to me that if the Commission on Presidential Debates is going to rely on polling, it should be polling that looks like the ballot most people will be staring at, and that includes Johnson (and Stein for the most part) alongside Hillary and The Donald.

  4. Avatar Gregory Herr says:

    The Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton will give Stein a big boost, not Johnson. The Green Party and Jill Stein need to be in the debates.

  5. Avatar Mark Donald Berteau says:

    I can’t wait for the day when I no longer see partisan comments and people buying the political theater designed to blind them from the monolithic enemy right in front of them. Only then will real change from this race to the bottom end.

  6. Avatar greg duenow says:

    Like a BOSS!

  7. Avatar Frank von Winkhorst says:

    Is Who What Why endorsing this character?

    • Avatar MrLiberty says:

      One should always endorse the concept of the maximum representation of the maximum diversity of ideas on the debate state (versus the limited ideas of the two-party oligarchy), but endorsing Johnson would most certainly be a mistake. Maybe when a TRUE libertarian comes along, but not Johnson.

    • Avatar Jeff Clyburn says:

      No. Pretty straight report, as I see. You read it, yes?

  8. Avatar MrLiberty says:

    Just think of how positive this might be if Johnson were ACTUALLY a libertarian. Sadly of course he is not. He is getting the coverage he is specifically because his positions are basically Republican/Democrat positions. If he actually proposed anything really radical (like the Libertarian Party Platform), he would be shunned by all media outlets. The Party failed once again with this election cycle.

  9. Avatar TheDoctorsWife says:

    GO GARY!!!!

  10. Avatar Jean Kutzer says:

    In the 90’s Alaska elected a third party Governor and Lt Governor. Alaska Independence Party. I worked for them. Two weeks before the election they were polling at 20%.

  11. Avatar Taylor O says:

    Gary Johnson has my vote. He is the most sane candidate, and the only third party candidate with 50 state ballot access.