The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Gary Johnson Lost Millennials

New polls reveal that the Libertarian candidate is losing support among young people—and the ones who say they'll vote for him aren't all that sure about it.

by Mike Pearl
Oct 28 2016, 3:21pm

Gary Johnson in New York in September. Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images

Gary Johnson in New York in September. Photo by Ray Tamarra/GC Images

October has been a bad month for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. As FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten noted on Monday, not only are his polling numbers in a steady decline, he's been overshadowed by independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin in Utah. And though many articles have been written about the anti–drug war, anti-war, anti-tax candidate's appeals to the young, it appears that as the election approaches, millennials are ditching Johnson for Clinton. Now there's more bad news for the former New Mexico governor: According to Harvard's latest Survey of Young Americans' Attitudes Toward Politics, published on Wednesday, the it looks like Johnson's support could erode even further.

Harvard's general snapshot of 18- to 29-year-old likely voters makes for somewhat bleak reading. Fifty-one percent of young people call themselves fearful, compared to 20 percent who are hopeful, and there's been a general rise in thinking that America is on the wrong track—49 percent, as opposed to 39 percent in the spring of last year.

All that dissatisfaction, however, is not translating into a desire to ditch Clinton, who had the support of 49 percent of respondents, followed by Trump's 21 percent and Johnson's 14 percent. That's more than the Libertarian gets in surveys of the general population, but polls in August and September occasionally placed Johnson ahead of Trump among millennials.

Revealingly, many millennials who do back Johnson aren't all that passionate about him. An astonishing 37 percent of Johnson fans said they might change their minds and vote for someone else, compared to only 6 percent of Clinton supporters and 5 percent of Trump voters who said they might ditch their candidates.

That Trump is widely despised by most young people, even many young conservatives, is well known, so the GOP nominee's second-place showing was something of a surprise to John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard's Institute of Politics. Della Volpe told me that millennial voters' habits suggested that Trump's statements and performance at the first debate had completely nuked his shot at earning the support of the under-35 crowd. "The youth vote was coming down to Clinton, Johnson, or the couch," he recalled thinking at the time.

Why are so many rejecting Johnson now? It might have to do with him admitting to not knowing what Aleppo was in an interview with MSNBC's Mike Barnicle in early September. It was around that time that he lost six points with young voters, and "five of those six points went to Hillary" Volpe said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

Three weeks later, Johnson blew it again when he couldn't tell Chris Matthews the name of a single world leader he admired, and said he was having another "Aleppo moment." In a recent focus group with undecided young voters, Della Volpe told me, "almost to a person, they were familiar with the Johnson gaffes." Fuck-ups like those, as everyone knows, spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter, social networks that are major news sources for millennials.

There were a few data points in the Harvard survey that suggests the Libertarian Party isn't going to experience a surge in popularity, even if its future candidates are more polished than Johnson. For instance, young people in 2013 had an intense dislike of NSA gathering their social media data—only 19 percent of them approved of it—whereas today "there has been some softening in the position," Volpe said, with 30 percent being fine with the practice.

But voting is often not based on something as rational as a candidate's stated positions. Some people tell pollsters they'll vote third party because they don't want to associate themselves with an unpopular major candidate—but when they get into the voting booth, they change their minds. It could be that as election day approaches, millennials are deciding that a protest candidate sounds more fun in theory than practice.

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