Why you don't hear about some presidential candidates

Jan 8, 2014

Two years ago, there were three truly national presidential candidates on the November ballot. Two were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But who was the third? Give up? It was Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.

Like Obama and Romney, he was on almost every state ballot, except Oklahoma and, ironically, Michigan, where more than 7,000 people did write in his name. Part of the reason most of us don’t remember Johnson is because, in the end, President Obama got about 66 million votes. Romney got about 61 million. Gary Johnson got a little over a million and a quarter, or just under one percent.

Why did he do so poorly? Were his ideas that repellent? My guess is, not really.

Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, was a more credible candidate than Ross Perot, who got almost 20% of the vote 20 years ago. The real difference was that Obama and Romney had hundreds of millions to spend on their campaigns. Perot, a billionaire, had plenty to spend in his day. Johnson had chicken feed.

The Libertarians could manage bumper stickers and websites. But they couldn’t dream of the massive TV advertising campaigns the major parties launched. So few knew who their candidate was.

I am reminding us of this because of the news that Gov. Rick Snyder is buying $400,000 of TV advertising during next month’s Super Bowl alone. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent this year, Mark Schauer, announced that he will apply for public financing of his primary campaign, the political equivalent of going on welfare.

Nearly 40 years ago, in an attempt to create a level playing field, Michigan established public financing for gubernatorial campaigns. You could get up to a million dollars for the primary if you agreed to spend, total, no more than two million. Those were rational limits then. But they haven’t been raised, and make no sense now.

Candidates can still spend as much as they want, if they don’t accept public funds. That’s what Snyder is doing. He is a multimillionaire. Thanks to a new law he just signed, special interests will be able to spend vast amounts on his campaign without even revealing who they are.

Mark Schauer doesn’t have access to that kind of money. That’s why he is taking public financing. Yesterday, Schauer was sneered at by Republican Mike Cox, who Snyder beat for the nomination four years ago. Cox said it was wrong for Schauer to take that money now because he doesn’t have a primary opponent. Well, neither does Snyder.

Both men are already running against each other, and the incumbent is likely to have access to more money than God. Here’s an idea to restore some sanity to our campaigns:

The Federal Election Commission should decree that campaigns are limited to spending a certain reasonable amount on the over-the-air broadcast transmissions they regulate. They could spend anything they like otherwise.

That might mean they would have to concentrate on getting their message out, rather than smearing the other guys. That might mean we might come to know what they really stand for. I think that would make a lot of sense. But if you are waiting for that to happen, don’t hold your breath.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.