Wait. So I don't have to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in November?

Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-25 07:15:20-04

Have you heard of Gary Johnson? He’s running for president.

“President of what?”

This is the response Ryan Holstine, state director of the Johnson presidential campaign in Ohio, hears often when he approaches voters about the Libertarian candidate. 

As it stands now, 70 percent of voters don’t know who Johnson and his running mate, William Weld, are. And supporters admit his campaign is running out of time.

“The next two weeks are incredibly important to the campaign,” said Tommy Zimmerman, co-president of the University of Cincinnati chapter of Youth for Johnson/Weld as he passed out signs on campus Wednesday.

In the coming week, the Johnson campaign is launching a major publicity push. His supporters in Ohio will be making phone calls, knocking on doors, waving signs on busy street corners and hanging banners from highway overpasses to raise Johnson’s name recognition here.

“It is a very grassroots campaign. Our ground game will make it or break it,” Holstine said.

He estimates the campaign has 30,000 volunteers in Ohio, in addition to two paid staffers and a campaign office in Columbus that opened this week.

“Our goal here is to get him to 15 (percent in polls), to push him up and over, so Americans can finally hear another voice and we can have a real campaign this year, a real debate, and make some good change for the country,” Zimmerman said.

Youth for Gary Johnson's (from left) Co-Presidents Kyle Wilson and Tommy Zimmerman and volunteer Jenna Miles talk to people at the University of Cincinnati in hopes of raising awareness for the Libertarian candidate for the 2016 Presidential Election. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

Johnson missed the cut for the first presidential debate on Monday, depriving him of attention he desperately needs to raise his profile among voters.

Now his supporters are hoping to boost his poll numbers over the next two weeks so that he can qualify for a spot on stage at the next presidential debate on Oct. 9 in St. Louis.

Candidates must meet a threshold of 15 percent support across multiple national polls in order to qualify for the debates. As it stands neither Johnson – who averages 9 percent support– or Green Party candidate Jill Stein – who averages 3 percent – could make the debate stage.

So it wasn’t surprising when the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on Sept. 16 that neither third party candidate would be invited to the debate.

But it did provide an unexpected boost to the Johnson campaign locally.

“Ever since last weekend when we learned he would not be in the first debate, it has really ramped up,” said Matt McGowan, Southwest Ohio coordinator for the Johnson campaign. “I bet we’re adding 10 to 15 new volunteers a day.”

This is a true grassroots effort where supporters buy their own campaign signs and work from home to reach voters with phone calls, emails and text messages, he said.

Youth for Gary Johnson speaks to students at the University of Cincinnati to raise awareness for the Libertarian candidate for the 2016 Presidential Election. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

“Until now we’ve utilized social media almost exclusively,” McGowan said. “Gary Johnson is polling strongest among millennials and I think it’s because of the social media push.”

Meanwhile both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump are struggling with millennial voters.

A survey of millennials in 11 battleground states released last week for Project New America and NextGen Climate showed that most young voters dislike Trump, with 73 percent saying they believe he is racist.

Among likely millennial voters, this survey found Clinton drawing 48 percent to Trump’s 23 percent, with 13 percent for Johnson and 8 percent for Stein.

While Clinton has made inroads with millennials, the survey showed she still has room for improvement. Of likely voters who supported former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, 25 percent saw no real difference between Clinton and Trump on issues important to them.

“The typical third party voter is a person who thinks there is absolutely no difference between the two main candidates,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “So who is left? It’s the thoroughly disgusted.”

Youth for Gary Johnson speaks to students at the University of Cincinnati. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

Perhaps that’s why Johnson’s message of ending foreign wars, legalizing marijuana and cutting government spending is hitting home with millennials who are buried in student debt and looking for a dramatic change in leadership.

“They’re tired of the constant wars," Zimmerman said. "They’re tired of the oppression of minority groups and they’re really tired of this drug war that has lasted so long. And his message of fiscal responsibility really resonates with millennials.”

Kyle Wilson, a UC sophomore who is co-president of the Johnson campus group, believes young people want a president who has good moral character. He supported Gov. John Kasich for president but when Kasich dropped out of the race, he refused to back Trump as the Republican nominee.

“I think he’s a man of a lot more character than the other two candidates,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to come out of this election season feeling as if I’ve compromised my morals in voting for someone that I did not believe in."

Honesty is also hugely important to Zimmerman, who spent Wednesday afternoon on campus collecting 110 student signatures for Johnson.

Members of Youth for Gary Johnson speak to students at the University of Cincinnati. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

“I think that personal character is huge for millennials and right now with all the scandals that Hillary (Clinton) is involved in," Zimmerman said, "it seems as if every week we’re hearing something that she’s lied about, that she hasn’t been completely truthful about, that she’s hiding, that she’s covering up. And millennials want honesty."

But millennial support won’t be enough to push Johnson to the White House, or even the debate stage, political experts warn.

“If ever there was an open door for a presidential candidate it is this year,” said Niven, noting the historic unpopularity of both Clinton and Trump with voters.

“But (Johnson) doesn’t galvanize people," Niven said. "He doesn’t have any magnetic force to attract people." 

As the election gets closer, people drift away from third-party candidates because they want to cast a vote “of consequence” at the polls, Niven said, predicting that Johnson’s 9 percent poll average will shrink.

Unless Monday night’s debate is so awful for both Clinton and Trump that it forces people to look for an alternative, said University of Dayton communications chair Joe Valenzano, who is an expert on campaign rhetoric.

“Depending on what happens at that debate and his response to it, he might be able to make it on the stage for a later debate,” Valenzano said.

Youth for Gary Johnson's Jenna Miles writes with sidewalk chalk at McMicken Commons at the University of Cincinnati. Phil Didion | WCPO contributor

Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, die-hard Johnson supporters say they will vote for him no matter what.

"I hear a lot of people say that a vote for a third party is a wasted vote and I don’t see that to be the case at all," Zimmerman said. "I see voting for someone that you don’t believe in, voting for someone who doesn’t represent your values or voting for someone so you can vote against someone … that to me is a waste of my vote. I’m going to vote for somebody who actually, truly represents my values.”