Where is Gary Johnson?

Story highlights

  • The third-party candidate has focused on TV and digital
  • Here's what Johnson is -- and isn't -- doing to make his long shot candidacy a viable bet

(CNN)Conservatives dissatisfied with Donald Trump have given the Libertarian presidential nominee a chance to take his third party to center stage, but Gary Johnson has not exactly been a fixture on the campaign trail.

Largely eschewing traditional campaign events, the former New Mexico governor has instead opted to appear almost daily on multiple news programs and appeal to his solid core of online support.
    That could soon change as the campaign considers more regular appearances in the real world.
    Johnson campaign spokesperson Joe Hunter told CNN Monday the campaign is now undergoing a "natural evolution," having recently ramped up its fundraising efforts with the stated intention of buying advertisements in key states and beginning to hold rallies across the country.
    Despite enjoying a brief surge in the lead-up to the major party conventions, Johnson has generally hovered in the high single digits in national polls. The latest CNN Poll of Polls showed Johnson at 9% support nationwide.
    In a race where the majority of voters say they are dissatisfied with their mainstream offerings for president, where the Republican nominee has secured little support from the nation's largest generation -- millennials -- and where digital media has taken an unprecedented place in the political landscape, here's what Johnson is -- and isn't -- doing to make his long shot candidacy a viable bet.

    Media is 'critical'

    Hunter called the constant interviews "a critical" component of the campaign, and after taking scheduling into account, "We take every opportunity we get."
    Similar to Trump, Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld, have relied on "earned media" in the form of appearances in the press.
    Unlike Trump, the two almost always stay on message.
    Since winning the nomination at the Libertarian Party's convention in May, Johnson and Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, have used their appearances to cast themselves as the centrist candidates between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
    They point out their experience as Republican governors in traditionally Democratic-leaning states. Johnson often touts his laissez-faire approach to drugs and immigration, while Weld has pointed to his record on LGBT rights and his cordial relationship with both sides of the aisle, including the Clintons. Both champion their conservative credos on matters of spending.
    But the live television appearances, including two prime-time town hall events on CNN, have not yet afforded the Libertarian ticket national recognition or a strong showing in the polls.
    On the digital side, the Johnson campaign has largely stuck to its roots by embracing the Libertarian community online. Reaching supporters through social media and email, the campaign has kept its base abreast of its progress -- and appealed for funds.
    The Johnson campaign said Tuesday its August "money bomb" fundraising campaign surpassed its goal of $1.5 million based off "entirely digital" appeals for money. The campaign said it raised $840,000 on Monday alone, totaling $2.9 million in donations in the first two weeks of the month.

    Republican outreach

    A number of groups have fallen into place doing some of the heavy lifting that the long shot bid needs doing.
    Among the most standout recent entries into the Johnson orbit is a newly minted group called Republicans for Johnson/Weld. The group formed this month to bring the GOP leaders and voters Trump had alienated into the Libertarian fold.
    Republican strategist and group spokesperson Liz Mair told CNN Monday the pro-Johnson forces seeking to convert Republicans from a divisive nominee were in uncharted waters.
    "I don't think anybody's tried to launch an effort like this," Mair said.
    Despite the lack of an established path, Johnson has notched a few victories. Rep. Scott Rigell said he will support Johnson in November, and Reps. Reid Ribble and Mike Coffman have said they are considering it.
    In separate interviews, Hunter and Mair both said they had heard supportive words from Republican politicians but that many were not ready to come out into the open against their party.
    The outside group could be a key factor in the mainstreaming of Johnson. It already holds several well-known Republican staffers. On Monday, it added Joseph Russo III, a former Sarah Palin aide, Mair said.
    Given the nature of the group, Mair said a "number of us have better connections" to GOP Capitol Hill figures than the Libertarian campaign.

    What will Mitt Romney do?

    Within the Johnson campaign, Weld has taken the lead on outreach to Republicans. However, his biggest prize still eludes him: 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
    Romney served as governor of Massachusetts after Weld and has said if Weld were topping the ticket, he would be supporting them, but he still needed to hear what Johnson had to say. Months have passed since then without a Romney endorsement.
    In Las Vegas on Friday, Johnson said he was "not optimistic for all sorts of reasons" about getting Romney's backing.
    The Libertarian efforts to sway Republicans have also had to push back against the notion they are helping Clinton.
    Johnson has said he is pulling about evenly from both sides and been forceful in his condemnation of Trump.
    Mair said Trump was doing the work of helping Clinton on his own and that Clinton's win was at this point "overwhelming likely," although Johnson still had a chance in an unpredictable cycle.
    "The Republicans screwed up. That's not Gary Johnson's fault," she said.

    Up in the air

    Hunter said many people would not come to their side until the Johnson candidacy had reached a "critical mass," which they hope to achieve by ramping up their campaign efforts and their ad spending.
    In addition to television ads, the campaign said it was looking at radio, billboards and continuing its online efforts.
    As with the major party candidates, outside spending groups have also taken it upon themselves to launch ads in support of Johnson. A Libertarian spending group called Americans Deserve Better PAC has put together a few spots hailing the former governors as the "adults" in the race.
    Republicans for Johnson/Weld, meanwhile, said its focus is less on traditional advertising than generating viral content. So far, however, one of the group's most viral moments came not from distributed content, but from an appearance on CNN. Ahead of the second Libertarian town hall, Mair told CNN's Anderson Cooper that Trump's message "is being a loud-mouthed d---, basically."
    All told, this third party effort has so far expounded more resources on general election advertisements than Trump's campaign, which has yet to join in the air wars.
    Green Party nominee Jill Stein has also purchased ad time, although she has disavowed outside spending groups and has no establishment support.
    All of these efforts have so far been dwarfed by Clinton and her allied super PACs, which have spent exponentially more than the three other presidential campaigns.
    In light of her recent polling, Clinton super PAC Priorities USA said it would temporarily stop advertising in many key swing states.

    In the flesh

    Johnson has not been able to draw the kind of rock star crowd sizes that Trump or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders attracted earlier this year.
    The former New Mexico governor held one rally in Utah on a Saturday earlier this month and another in Reno, Nevada. After rescheduling, he is set to hold another in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this Saturday.
    His campaign said it was still working out specifics on other rallies in the near future but that it planned to host public events soon in Florida and New England.
    Meanwhile, fundraising efforts have come largely from the digital side, although the campaign said the governors have appealed directly for funds, with a planned event in Miami on Wednesday.
    Their most prominent fundraising event so far came in late July at a Hollywood event hosted by Drew Carey, the Libertarian host of "The Price is Right."