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Why is Gov. Gary Johnson Not in Next Week’s Debate?

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For reasons which are at best illogical and at worst suspect, one of the best qualified candidates in the Republican field has not been invited to participate in next week’s Republican debate in Manchester, New Hampshire. Although almost every other candidate was invited, no invitation was sent to former Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico. CNN is the primary sponsor of the debate and they claim that Johnson did not meet their criteria, particularly because he did not score 2% or more in the national polls they used for a reference, particularly their own polls.

Governor Johnson lays out many of the reasons why it makes no sense to exclude him from the debate in an article on his website, and the arguments based on his qualifications and his relevance are hard to ignore. He’s a two term governor who has been in the race as a declared candidate since the very beginning, has outstanding credentials as a fiscal conservative and has raised substantial amounts of money. He was also included in the previous debate in South Carolina and is expected to be included in the upcoming debate in Florida. Johnson is also popular in New Hampshire where his mainstream libertarian message resonates with local activist groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus.

It’s also notable that in previous debates CNN has made exceptions for candidates who were clearly serious and legitimate but did not meet all of their polling criteria, notably Mike Gravel in a similar debate in 2007. And they aren’t exactly being strict about some of their criteria this time either, as they sent invitations to candidates who have not declared their candidacy and at least one who seems very unlikely to ever enter the race.

The main stumbling block is the question of whether Johnson has received 2% or more in relevant polls in May. It appears that CNN’s argument for not including him is that he scored under 2% in their main presidential poll in the end of May. The problem with this argument is that the poll consists of four different versions with different lists of candidates, and while Johnson scores below two percent in two versions and 2% or more in the other two versions, the key distinction is that Johnson scores below the cutoff only in those polls which include candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin who have not declared and are not likely to declare as actual candidates. So in the only matchups CNN did with candidates who are actually running and attending the debate Johnson met their criteria. How can it be fair to exclude him on the basis of poll results which do not represent the actual composition of the campaign field or of the debate itself?

In addition, if you actually do the poll research, you can easily find (as shown in the accompanying video) that Johnson actually does meet the stated criteria, because in addition to scoring 2% in a number of polls he also scored 3% in the May Gallup poll, one of the polls specifically indicated as qualified for consideration by CNN. Just following their stated criteria it’s impossible for Johnson not to qualify for inclusion in the debate. That being the case, there’s either something wrong with CNN’s math skills or something fishy going on.

With the first primary still half-a-year away, setting any cutoff for qualification for a debate is fairly arbitrary. At this point in previous campaigns future nominees like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were polling at 2% or less and they went on to win nomination and the general election. Like Johnson these candidates were successful governors with extensive executive experience who used the campaign period to build a national reputation and go on to victory. They were able to do that because they were included in debates based on their qualifications rather than on polls conducted before the public has really become aware of what the candidates stand for.

It’s possible that CNN just didn’t think these criteria through, and there’s still hope that they will reconsider and allow Johnson to participate. There’s a very active write-in and call-in campaign underway to persuade them that they’ve made a mistake and should let viewers hear from Johnson.

Yet it’s also possible that CNN may have other reasons for not wanting Johnson included. If you have been watching their coverage of the election, it’s very clear that they want to present a particular picture of the Republican party, as a party of social and religious conservatives who are out of step with the increasingly open-minded views of the voting public. Governor Gary Johnson clearly does not fit that manufactured narrative.

With his support for ending the War on Drugs and our wars in the Middle East, as well as socially libertarian positions on gay rights and other issues, Johnson represents a Republican constituency they would rather pretend does not exist – truly libertarian Republicans in the tradition of Barry Goldwater and Jack Kemp who remain a significant element in the party. This group is not the same as the more paleoconservative core group of Ron Paul supporters, although they agree on many issues. With his more socially conservative views, Ron Paul fits CNN’s vision of the GOP better than Gary Johnson does, plus there’s no way to write him off when he’s polling in double digits.

The truth is that the libertarian wing of the Republican party makes up at least 20% of the party and it is split close to 50-50 (maybe 55-45) between Paul supporters and more moderate libertarians who have been undercover since the Reagan era or who are young and just getting involved in politics. For years moderate libertarians have kept their heads low and worked within the party while they secretly voted for Ron Paul. Johnson’s combination of political pragmatism and libertarian positions on key issues speaks to them and is making them believe that a different kind of Republican Party is possible and they are emerging as a political force.

If CNN is excluding Johnson because they don’t like the idea of a debate where two different kinds of libertarianism are represented, clearly demonstrating that the GOP is not just a party of religious conservatives and war hawks, then they are doing voters and certainly all Republicans a great disservice.

For information on how to contact CNN and other involved groups to encourage them to include Gov. Johnson in the debate see the RLC website.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Baronius

    How many debates are there going to be before the primaries? I’d like to see debates with more candidates, with fewer candidates, with candidates one-on-one, with candidates performing their own songs, with candidates putting their own spin on Motown classics, whatever. If this cycle is like 2008, there won’t be one make-or-break debate in the primaries, at least not until they get a lot closer. It seems a little early to play the media bias card.

  • Maybe all candidates should be forced to go on Glee?

    As for the media bias card, I’ve been simmering about how CNN is covering the GOP for a while and this seemed like a good entry point to that issue. More than other networks they seem particularly determined to redefine what the Republican party stands for and turn them into a convenient bogeyman for their agenda.


  • Baronius

    big exodus of the Gingrich team – rumored to be reassembling around Perry

  • Costello

    The other candidates should refuse to participate if Johnson isn’t allowed in, but I doubt if any of them have the character or fortitude

  • Would love to see that, Costello, but when we get to that point we’ll have the Republican Party I’ve been working towards.


  • Mike

    I mean no disrespect to Gary Johnson…he was great on Stossel and I agree with much of what he said. I think it’s great that both he and RP are in….BUT, I think you’re overstating the share of the “libertarian” wing of the Rep Party that are GJ supporters vs. RP supporters. RP has a massive movement behind him that GJ doesn’t have yet.

    And, forget the other candidates boycotting in some kind of show of solidarity….they’re opponents! Is that really the Republican Party you’re looking for, Dave? I think that’s more likely to be found in the Libertarian Party…

  • While opponents, they should stand united on principle because any of them could be barred because of some arbitrary hurdle set. If he’s filed the necessary paperwork to run, he should be let in, period. Fudge (only I didn’t say ‘fudge’) CNN and the TV show they are putting on.

  • Mike, I’m looking for a party which can elect libertarians. The LP demonstrably cannot and the GOP is.

    My breakdown of libertarian support in the GOP is based on recent polling which suggests about a 20% share of the GOP voting base (Republican voting independents included) as some form of libertarian, about 11% of the Ron Paul variety and about 9% of other varieties.


  • If Gary Johnson’s brand of libertarianism represents only 9% of Republicans [Dave’s own figure], then is it really a caricature of the GOP to ‘paint’ them as socially conservative [since 91% or so are indeed]?

    CNN is so bland and straightforward that accusing them of having an agenda requires a little more evidence than Dave’s name-calling. Certainly not in the sense that MSNBC and Fox News have agendas, expressed through openly one-sided opinion shows that follow a talk-radio model. CNN does nothing comparable to that.

    Maybe Johnson’s numbers are borderline and having one less podium on a crowded stage makes for less tedious TV.

  • Handy, libertarians who are also socially liberal are not the only social liberals or moderates in the GOP. And even Ron Paul libertarians are socially neutral or opposed to government involvement in social policy. Polls suggest that when you add up the various socially moderate to liberal to neutral groups they make up a majority of the GOP while true hardcore moral conservatives who want to dictate social policy are a minority of less than 30%.

    As for the crowded stage, it’s not that crowded. CNN hosted more candidates at the same debate in 2007 and the other debates currently scheduled also have more participants, so that’s not a valid argument.


  • “having one less podium on a crowded stage makes for less tedious TV.”

    It’s a Presidential debate, not a reality show, Handy.

  • zingzing

    of course, if they made it a reality show and we saw just what goes into a presidential campaign (basically, begging for funds and then making up soundbites on stage), maybe we voters would put a little more critical thinking into it.

  • RT

    These criteria were jointly established by the debate sponsors, all of whom intensely dislike the libertarian wing of the Republican party. The purpose of the criteria was to exclude Johnson, unlike the requirements used for last month’s debate, all of which were perfectly sensible.

    Andrew Cline, the editor of the Union Leader, is a rabid social conservative who could be easily described as Rich Lowry’s New Hampshire sock poppet. And CNN, as you’ve noted, seeks to portray the Republicans as the party of Rick Santorum, which is more easily accomplished with the inclusion of said Santorum and the exclusion of Johnson.

    Furthermore, as was demonstrated on Stossel, the Republican establishment and electorate is far more hostile to Johnson and his ideas than the general public. Johnson himself admitted during the South Carolina debate that the Republican primary would be a more difficult campaign for him and than general election.

    Nevertheless, Johnson will be on stage for the debate in Nevada. At that point Gingrich’s vanity campaign should have run its course, along with that of Santorum. It’s still very early.

  • Arch Conservative

    “If CNN is excluding Johnson because they don’t like the idea of a debate where two different kinds of libertarianism are represented, clearly demonstrating that the GOP is not just a party of religious conservatives and war hawks, then they are doing voters and certainly all Republicans a great disservice.”

    Do you even have to posit that as a hypothetical Dave?

    The last thing the corporate sponsored state media wants is anything that would run contrary to the propaganda campaign they’ve invested so much in. I’m surprised they let Ron Paul in. The thing I remember most from 2008 is Huckabee, Romney, Guiliani and McCrazy laughing at Paul during a debate for not toeing the line of the military industrial complex.

    I used my vote in 2008 to tell John McCain to go fuck himself. I’ll do Romney the honor in 2012.

    Obama? Romney? What’s the difference? They’d both be nothing but Bernanke’s little bitch.

  • And to think that Arch used to be a Mitt supporter on these very pages.

    No evidence is offered by Dave, RT or Arch that CNN or other ‘corporate media’ have an ‘agenda’ regarding the Republican presidential campaign. This is simply taken as a given.

    To my surprise, Dave Nalle apparently spends enough time watching CNN to develop a mysterious ‘simmering’ in his innards. At any rate, his standard line used to be that ‘corporate media’ had just one agenda, profits, and that’s what distorted their coverage. That certainly makes more sense than believing that CNN execs come up with a secret narrative to push.

    I don’t object at all to Johnson’s participation [I certainly won’t be watching anyway; I don’t watch Dem debates either — they are just about completely pointless]. But the constant drumbeat of conspiracy mongering undercuts the relative reasonableness of the rest of this article.

  • Handy, the end of the article is just an attempt to explain what appears to be irrational behavior. I did offer the alternative option that the folks at CNN are just dead stupid.


  • Or that they simply have a different interpretation of what polls say about Johnson’s viability.

    And I wish you were right about social conservatives being such a small minority of overall conservative/Republican voters. It seems wildly inaccurate to me, and there is an uncomfortable amount of overlap in the religious-slanted rhetoric of, to name a few, Rick Perry, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, Marco Rubio…even allegedly fiscal-focused guys like Rick Scott and Mitch Daniels seem obsessed with scary extremist anti-abortion measures and demonizing poor people [Scott’s ‘everybody must be urine tested’ overreach…talk about big government!].

  • “Or that they simply have a different interpretation of what polls say about Johnson’s viability.”

    And keeping him off TV will affect his poll numbers, which in turn will keep him out of other debates. Vicious circle that the media should not be contributing to. Are you for democracy or against it?

  • RT


    I’m not sure what sort of “evidence” would suffice in this case. A quick read of the Union Leader’s editorial pages would show you rather quickly which wing of Republican Party Drew Cline is aligned with. And that wing is most assuredly not libertarian, libertarian-leaning, or even vaguely socially moderate. The Union Leader would heartily endorse George W. Bush, were he an available candidate.

    And the “conspiracy theory” is quite easily proven when looking at the differences between the debate criteria from the May 5th debate and the upcoming one. Why did the debate organizers raise the polling threshold from 1% to 2% and adopt those very specific polls? There was only one candidate affected by the change, Gary Johnson. Could the intention not be more obvious?

  • I’m against dumb internet articles and accompanying comments that without evidence equate bland old CNN with ominous conspiracy theories, and then equate democracy with televised yawn-inducing debates full of meaningless sound bites.

    I already said I’m fine with Johnson’s participation; I’m fine with your dissing CNN about it. Just not with your caricaturing CNN’s motives, or my own.

    Congratulations: “Are you for democracy or against it?” is worthy of Newt Gingrich or Sean Hannity or Ed Schultz. Hint: not a compliment.

  • Johnson participated in the SC debate. But the surprise ‘winners’ did not include Johnson: according to the Fox News/Frank Luntz focus group, they were Cain and Santorum. Those two are not ‘mainstream’ GOP and they are not likely to be nominated. They are far right extremists. These debates are just wingnut circuses. Why are you guys so focused on them?

  • RT

    The concern is one of visibility. The debates allow Johnson to reach new audiences who have not been previously exposed to him. He won’t “win” any of the debates, but the goal is one of increasing familiarity with him as a candidate. Only 21% of the public even claims familiarity with Johnson, the lowest percentage of any mainstream candidate.

  • Leroy

    Gary Johnson? Who cares about Gary Johnson?

    How’s the Harold Stassen campaign doing? I thought I saw the Stassen campaign bus roll by the other day.

  • With Johnson gone, CNN was able to ask more hard-hitting questions like whether Rick Santorum prefers Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien or if Mitt Romney likes his hot wings spicy or mild.

    At least CNN has Handy on their side. Hint: not a compliment.

  • Baronius

    It doesn’t sound like the debate was worth watching, anyway. Answers were limited to 30 seconds or until the moderator started mumbling over you, whichever came first. I heard someone speculate that Johnson got more press out of not being invited than he would have if he’d participated.