Empty Town Halls and ‘Easter Bunny Epiphanies’: On the Campaign Trail With Gary Johnson

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Alex Altman / TIME

Presidential Candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson at a town hall meeting in Concord, New Hampshire.

New Hampshire

When Gary Johnson was in third grade, a teacher casually mentioned that Santa Claus didn’t exist. This was news. “I’m like, what?” he recalls. “That means there’s no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy. They don’t exist!?”

The former two-term governor of New Mexico and Republican presidential candidate relates this story—the moment when reality punctured his childhood cocoon—as a metaphor for the painful political awakening he’s endured on the campaign trail in 2012.  “I’ve come to a lot of what I call ‘Easter Bunny epiphanies’ in my life,” Johnson says. The realization that presidential politics is not, in fact, a paragon of democracy has caught him by surprise. “Naively, I really thought that when it comes to politics, this would be a fair process.”

It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and we’re sitting at a plastic table in the Manchester, N.H., basement office that serves as a headquarters for Johnson’s quixotic presidential bid. The suite is a reflection of the over-sized ambition and modest scope of the campaign itself: spacious and sparse, with detritus scattered in the kitchen, signs strewn around the room and a hand-lettered “Johnson 2012” placard papered on one wall. Johnson, 58, is wearing jeans and sneakers, a Livestrong bracelet and a shirt that wicks sweat away from his chiseled frame. Later today, along with his fiancé, Kate Prusack, and his adult son Erik, he’ll embark on his latest campaign swing through New Hampshire, a six-day, 458-mile bike tour dubbed the “Ride for Freedom.” He’s invited fans to ride along between stops, but given the way the campaign is going, he’s apprehensive about turnout. “Maybe no one will show up,” he says.

This is Johnson’s campaign in a nutshell: an epic adventure that has proven lonelier than he expected. Johnson’s name rarely appears in taxonomies of the Republican field, and when it does it’s usually preceded by the words fringe candidate. His organization in New Hampshire, a key stopover on any Republican’s path to the nomination, numbers two young staffers, three inexperienced field operatives and a smattering of volunteers. He’s mired near the basement of polls – when he’s included in them at all. He netted just $180,000 in the second quarter, finishing with just $6,000 in his coffers.

What galls Johnson the most is the media blackout that has denied him a much-needed spotlight to raise his profile. The cable networks have excluded him from Republican debates, even though he’s often met the 2% threshold required to participate, and even as they invite candidates with comparably scant support (Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum) and news-makers who hadn’t entered the race or explicitly said they wouldn’t run (Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump). At a rare, recent debate appearance in September, his quip that a neighbor’s dogs have “created more shovel-ready jobs” than Barack Obama offered a measure of fleeting celebrity. “For one day, I was the most Googled person on the planet,” he marvels. But he was relegated to the sidelines again for an Oct. 11 debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, so he’s hopping on his bike instead.

Johnson’s mantra is that he doesn’t want to whine about this, but he does. A lot. He’s bitter. And to be sure, he has valid gripes—both about the media’s winnowing process and the entire flawed fashion in which the U.S. selects its President. “Never in my life did I think I would be denied a seat at the table,” he says. “I’m not on the poll. Is that right? Is that fair? Is that America? Not the America I envisioned. Not having been a successful governor.” Being jettisoned from polls and debates, he says, was the start of a vicious cycle that seeds voters with skepticism about his candidacy: “Why should I go hear Gary Johnson? Gary’s not even allowed to debate. He must be the pot guy.”

Gary is indeed “the pot guy.” He’s a libertarian who wants to legalize drugs, downsize government and balance the budget in one year by slashing spending by 43%. He would toss out the tax code and replace it with a Fair Tax on consumption, and solve America’s illegal-immigration problem by handing out more work visas. Johnson is a pro-choice, pro-civil-union fiscal conservative who doesn’t wear religion on his sleeve—a perfect fit, by his analysis, for New Hampshire. But he’s not a plausible contender in a Republican Party that has already had to adjust its contours to make room for Ron Paul.

Back in April, when Johnson became the first candidate to declare his intention to seek the GOP nomination, Johnson was bullish about his chances. He’s outrun expectations all his life. A self-made millionaire, he built the handyman service he started in college into a construction company with 1,000 employees. Feeling called to public service, he ran for governor as a Republican in a state that leans Democrat by a two-to-one margin. He had zero political experience and an unorthodox platform, but he came from nowhere to eke out a victory in the primary and then trounced the Democratic incumbent by 10 points. He boasts that as governor from 1995 to 2003, he vetoed some 750 bills, arguably more than every other state executive in the country combined. He took pride, he says, in being a “non-politician” in high political office. On the third Thursday of every month, he cleared his schedule from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. – he called it “Open Door after Four” — to allow a procession of constituents to visit his office and vent their grievances in five-minute increments.

But since leaving the governor’s mansion, Johnson has refused to play the part of the plaintive politician. Term-limited out of office and scornful of ex-politicos who cling to the pulpit their position affords, Johnson disappeared from the political scene. “I don’t get invited to Republican events in New Mexico and I don’t go to Republican events at all,” he says. His promise to overhaul the tax code and radically slash government spending dovetails with Tea Party dogma, but he’s done little to appeal to that constituency, about whom he’s ambivalent anyway — “a mixed bag,” he calls them. Though he’s in many ways a purer libertarian than Paul, particularly on social issues, and though his signature issue of drug legalization is sexier than Paul’s obsession with monetary policy, he’s effectively ceded the libertarian vote in New Hampshire to the Texan by refusing to take his case to Paul’s fervent supporters. “I hope we’ll be their No. 2 [choice],” he says.

If Johnson is a reticent politician, there’s no questioning his grit. A veteran triathlete, he’s climbed the highest peaks on four of seven continents, summiting Mt. Everest with a broken leg and frostbitten feet. He sold his business, built his dream home near the slopes of Taos, and took up paragliding–a hobby that led to a serious accident that laid him up for a couple years in the mid-2000s. The grind of the campaign trial doesn’t faze him. He has spent more days in New Hampshire than any other candidate, slogging through events with little turnout, enduring the sneers of Washington pundits and the GOP establishment. At the end of September, he’ll move into a rented house that will serve as his Granite State home base until the primary, which now seems likely to take place by Jan. 10 at the latest.

Before beginning the bike tour, Johnson has a stop to make. At noon, in a windy drizzle, he pulls up to Rotary Club No. 7493 in nearby Milford. Hopping out of the car with Kate and Erik, Johnson is greeted by his local field operative, Eric Jackman, whose T-shirt’s lettering is visible beneath his dress shirt and tie. Jackman stumbled into Johnson’s orbit after the former governor accepted an invititation to visit his home in Rindge, where he sat in Jackman’s living room and talked politics with a dozen strangers. Johnson greets him with a hug, and they walk inside, where seven tables of Rotarians are scarfing down a $13 dollar lunch of string beans and chicken parm.

“Good crowd,” says Brinck Slattery, Johnson’s state coordinator. A small, informal survey suggests few of them know who Johnson is. Before he speaks, there is business to dispense with: the club pledge, the word of the day (defenestrate: to throw out a window), announcements of upcoming events. Like all guests, Johnson is asked to contribute a dollar to the club fund, which he forks over without complaint. In exchange, he receives a token gift: a Pakistani flag pin, left over from an exchange student’s visit. “You can wear this during the next debate,” a Rotarian tells him.

Johnson’s stump speech is unwieldy, a laundry heap of political beliefs unadorned by campaign boilerplate or political platitudes. The reception is polite, though a woman audibly groans when he promises to pursue a fair tax. During the ensuing Q & A, an audience member praises Johnson’s ideas, but says he’s skeptical about his chances to effect change by bucking Republican dogma on nearly every issue. Another asks why he isn’t running as a libertarian. “The idea would be to actually win,” he explains.

That goal is beyond his grasp, and this surprises him. “I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist,” he says. But he has some theories. “Is it because I’m for legalization? Is it because I’m the only social non-conservative in the race? Does that make me a fringe candidate? I honestly don’t know.” He’s proud of his record, believes in his platform, and is both baffled and wounded by the fact that the press uses a popular two-term governor’s presence in the GOP field as a punchline. “I’m laboring under the belief that I’m the best guy for the job,” he says.

He is also, it seems, lured by the front-row ticket to a great American spectacle, one that allows him to crisscross New Hampshire with his family under the dazzling fall foliage. Between bouts of frustration, he musters the optimism to regard the race as another dizzying peak to scale. And if he can’t, he’s determined to relish the experience. “Here’s the reality, and I get to see what it’s like,” he says of the day-to-day grind of a presidential campaign. “And few people do.”

That night, after a 35-mile ride under brilliant sunshine, reality smacks him in the face. Johnson is holding a town hall at Concord High School, in a fourth-floor English classroom with perhaps 25 desks. A few minutes ahead of schedule, he walks into the room with his family only to find four reporters and no voters awaiting his arrival. He plops down in a chair before the whiteboard at the front of the room, flanked by six-foot banners proclaiming him “The People’s President.”

“What do you do if you hold a town hall and nobody shows up?” he wonders aloud.

A minute later, Slattery, his aide, steps inside to announce that a glitch prevented the robocalls advertising the appearance from going out. Nobody is coming. Johnson looks crestfallen; Kate and Erik look on quietly, their jaws set tight. With the press assembled before the candidate, Slattery suggests a Q & A. The first question is how this indignity makes Johnson feel.

“It sucks. It absolutely sucks,” Johnson says, his voice cracking slightly. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would not be at the table. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I wouldn’t have a place on the stage. I wouldn’t in my wildest dreams would have expected to not be listed on the polls that are being done nationally for President of the United States.”

It’s hard not to feel for Johnson at a moment like this, just as it’s hard to grasp why he doesn’t pack it in and head back to his dream home in Taos with a fiancée he adores. Johnson says he has no regrets, and insists he’s determined to ride out the process. “If I’m not successful, you’re just never going to hear from me again,” he says. It is a suggestive flash of candor, a moment when the fantasy slips to reveal the reality of impending failure. For Johnson, a man who seems programmed to wring the positive out of the bleak, there is an upside even to this. “If this doesn’t end up successful,” he says, “isn’t it good to know that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”

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