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At Milwaukee Stop, Gary Johnson Rallies Libertarians and those Considering Voting for a Third Party

Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio
Supporters of Libertarian Gary Johnson hold up signs to welcome him to the stage at Serb Hall Thursday night

Wisconsin has had its share this year of visits from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Thursday night, it was Gary Johnson's turn. The Libertarian presidential hopeful stopped in Milwaukee for a spirited rally.

Johnson attracted long-time Libertarians to his event at Serb Hall, as well as those thinking about voting for a third party for the first time. The former GOP governor of New Mexico greeted the cheering crowd by referring to the unusual year in presidential politics: "This is the craziest election ever, right? And you know how crazy it is? I'm going to be the next president of the United States!"

Johnson also took time to chat with reporters to sum up his philosophy by saying, "be whoever you want, but don't try to tell me how to live my life."

Johnson says he shares that message with running mate Bill Weld, another former GOP governor, and believes it resonates with voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere. He says people are increasingly identifying as independent, not as members of one of the two major parties.

"Where is their representation? I happen to think it's Bill Weld and myself -- fiscally conservative, socially inclusive, calling into question our being the world's policeman," Johnson said.

Johnson believes he can appeal to voters who are turned off by Republican Donald Trump, because of Trump's stance on immigration, among other issues. And the Libertarian thinks he offers an alternative for those who don't like Democrat Hillary Clinton, because they have reservations, including a fear that she'd raise taxes. Yet Johnson says in order to get his ideas out to a broad audience, he must perform better in polls, so he can get invited to the debates.

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio
Many people stopped to buy Johnson t-shirts on their way in to the rally in Milwaukee

"Without being on the debate stage, there's no way that you can win the presidency. It's estimated that the viewership for the first presidential debate is going to exceed that of the Super Bowl. You know, you can't win the Super Bowl if you're not in it," Johnson said.

Johnson says his poll numbers are improving, and he thinks they can get high enough. He says he's encouraged by a growing following on social media. Word of mouth also appears to be doing the trick. Art Copeland of Milwaukee is a driver for Lyft. He learned about Johnson's rally from a passenger.

"I picked up a young man with Lyft...and he was telling me about Johnson. And I'm not happy with the other two choices, so I figured, 'man, what the heck, man, let's see what this guy's about.' And he seems to be better than the other two, that's all I can say," Copeland said.

The latest Marquette Law School poll shows 10 percent of likely voters in Wisconsin favor Johnson. That's up two percentage points from a survey in July. Meanwhile, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein received support from four percent of likely voters, also up two points.

Yet the rising numbers don't guarantee the candidates will significantly impact the race. That's according to Christopher Murray of the Les Aspin Center for Government. He says historically, support for third party candidates dips when people actually vote on Election Day, "unless the voters are really, really looking for something different and they're so fed up and they're so disappointed with the other major options that they're being confronted with."

But one person we talked to at Thursday's rally told us that Libertarians aren't just hopeful for a strong showing in the presidential race. Glenn Klein says the election is giving the party momentum, which he believes will have a lasting impact.

"In this room right now, we have candidates that are running for state Assembly, for Congress, for Senate, for county executive positions, so that's where it starts," Klein says.

Klein adds the GOP started off as a third party, and before long gained a foothold -- and Republican Abraham Lincoln became president.

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