Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson plans to roll out television ads in some states this week as part of a post-Labor Day blitz aimed at ensuring the former New Mexico governor has strong enough poll numbers to be invited to the presidential debates.
Mr. Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, must have a national polling average of at least 15 percent to get a spot on stage next to Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, who are expected to easily meet the criteria set by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The Libertarian campaign has poured $3.8 million into the television ads set to run this week, as well as radio ads that have been airing in 15 states and on nationally syndicated talk radio. The 63-year-old received some good news over the weekend by landing an endorsement from the The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which urged the Commission on Presidential Debates to include him in the candidate showdowns.
Still, Mr. Johnson faces an uphill battle.
The Real Clear Politics average of national polls shows Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump by a 41 percent to 38 percent margin, followed by Mr. Johnson with 8 percent and Green Party candidate Jill Stein with 3.1 percent. Mr. Johnson’s campaign website says he is polling at 10.2 percent nationally.
“We believe and are confident that being up on the air in that fashion will begin to move numbers,” said Joe Hunter, a campaign spokesman. “The reality is that even with all we’ve done through earned media, the majority of voters still don’t know Gary Johnson and Gov. Weld, and what we find is once they know them they do quite well.”
Mr. Johnson also has been holding campaign events across the country, making media rounds and circulating a petition calling for his inclusion in the debates.
“I hope that people will see that we don’t have to sit by the sidelines and watch as the two major parties limit their choices to slightly different flavors of the status quo,” Mr. Johnson has said.
Pollsters say Mr. Johnson could eat into Mrs. Clinton’s support among young voters and Mr. Trump’s support among independents.
Mr. Johnson ran for president as a Republican in 2012 but was shut out of most of the primary debates because of his lackluster poll numbers. He went on to win the Libertarian nomination that year anyway. He recently said that his chances of winning the race would be “game over” if he is left out of the debates.
“It’s not impossible that if we go into the presidential debates with the polarization of Clinton and Trump that we might actually run the table on all this,” Mr. Johnson said.
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said that Mr. Johnson’s inclusion in the debates could help Mr. Trump.
“Johnson’s policy positions and conservative values are closer to ‘The Donald,’” Mr. Schmidt said. “Thus, they could basically gang up on Clinton. I think Trump would also prefer a three-candidate slugfest.”
The first presidential debate is scheduled for Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in New York, followed by candidate faceoffs in St. Louis on Oct. 9 and Las Vegas, Nevada, on Oct. 19. A vice presidential debate is penciled in for Oct. 4 at Longwood University in Virginia.