What is Gary Johnson?

Our Battleground Poll shows an opening. Our PEORIA Analytics confirm latent Twitter strength. Did Aleppo squander it all?

Michael Cohen
Published in
7 min readSep 8, 2016


This morning, the former New Mexico Governor and Libertarian candidate for President of the United States stepped in it. When asked by MSNBC’s resident Morning Joe curmudgeon Mike Barnacle in simple terms, “What would you do if elected about Aleppo?” Gary Johnson responded blankly, “And what is Aleppo?”

For context, here’s the official video from this morning’s broadcast:

Even in a campaign where the leading Democrat and Republican candidates are historically unpopular with voters and gaffe-prone, this was quite a moment given the opportunity available for Johnson. It raises the question of whether the perennial candidate is a realistic alternative to those wanting to avoid voting Clump (hat tip to my PEORIA Project colleague Dr. Michael Cornfield for the best Clinton-Trump construction of the season).

In this post, I’ll show you why this mistake especially hurts Johnson. Aleppo is a “macaca moment” at exactly the wrong time — big opportunity, debate deadline looming — to exactly the wrong people, his base.

Within range of the debate podium

Our George Washington University Battleground Poll highlights a tight 42% to 40% end-of-summer horserace between Clinton and Trump, respectively, and some of that support is soft. At this point, Clinton has 34% of the voters in battleground states “definitely” with her while Trump has 29% of those voters definitely with him.

In addition, about 24% of of those interviewed said they are very or somewhat likely to vote third party or for an independent candidate. Even if we view this as the ceiling for an alternative, this leaves plenty of room for Johnson to grab a spot on the debate podium, less than three weeks away. Johnson has 10% in the poll and needs 15% to secure a spot in the debates sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

To be fair, that’s 50% growth in three weeks — a difficult prospect for any candidate — but it’s only 5% and many of these polls have margins of error well within that range. Still, like Clump, Johnson’s support is soft with close to 7% only “probably” or “leaning” his way.

Was Johnson a potential threat to break the 15% barrier to the debate podium before his misadventure on Morning Joe? Yes, but with a bright yellow highlighter through the word potential.

Surprisingly growing on Twitter

Our previous research has shown that dismissing a large, growing, and engaged Twitter following is a bad idea. Trump’s account grew throughout the nomination process, which fueled his rise. Bernie Sanders’s followers were significantly more engaged than Clinton’s, which explains some of how he was able to keep it so close.

Does Twitter give us any insights to the trajectory of the Johnson campaign? Should Clump be concerned? First, let’s look at the trajectory of Johnson’s followers in 2016. In the chart below from our partners at Crimson Hexagon it’s clear that Johnson took off after the Republican National Convention, perhaps due to some who were dissatisfied with Trump as the nominee.

Johnson Follower Growth — Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

Clump’s Twitter follower growth rate over the same period is less than half. Here’s Trump’s:

Trump Follower Growth — Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

Here’s Clinton’s Twitter follower growth rate, which is even smaller:

Clinton Follower Growth — Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

Second, let’s look at where Johnson’s strength on Twitter is concentrated. Using data from our database partner, Stirista, we are able to construct geographic heat maps of concentrations of Twitter followers for each candidate. Let’s say you have 100 followers and 80 of them reside in California, it will show up bright red on the map. If you have only five followers in Maine, that state will show up in dark green.

As one might expect, Johnson’s followers are more concentrated in states closer to New Mexico, where he was the governor, with additional strength in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, all three of which are in play this cycle. Interestingly, Johnson also has stronger Twitter follower concentrations in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania than Trump, the latter two of which are battleground states.

Johnson Follower Chart — Data Provided by Stirista

Trump has stronger concentration of followers in New York and Florida, where he splits his time and business interests.

Trump Follower Chart — Data Provided by Stirista

Aside from the largest states, Clinton’s followers are less concentrated throughout the nation.

Clinton Follower Chart — Data Provided by Stirista

Next, let’s look at engagement. It’s instructive to look at what Crimson Hexagon calls potential impressions on sent posts here as it counts the amount of times that a particular post could have been seen. Potential impressions is calculated by adding the sender’s followers and the followers of all users who have Retweeted the post.

Of the three candidates Johnson’s growth in potential impressions, up 840% since January, far exceeds Clump’s.

Johnson Potential Impressions — Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

Clinton is up 182% in potential impressions since January:

Clinton Potential Impressions — Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

Trump is up only 34% in potential impressions since January (need to let finish running in CH):

Trump Potential Impressions — Courtesy of Crimson Hexagon

So is Johnson a cause for concern to Clump based on his campaign’s activity on Twitter? Yes. His campaign has been growing faster on Twitter in both followers and potential impressions on sent posts. Johnson has great disruptive potential because his support is relatively clustered in battleground states in the southwest as well as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

If it were not for the fact that we are 60 days from the election, we would be tracking this closely to see if Johnson could seriously challenge Clump for winning states, not just a spot in the debates. At this point, however, Clump liklely has too many more followers for Johnson to catch them in any meaningful way electorally.

Under-informed on Aleppo

This leads us back to today’s news, committed by Johnson on Morning Joe. It’s too early to tell if not knowing that Aleppo is the center of the conflict in Syria will move any potential voters away from Johnson. But Aleppo is already trending on Twitter in Washington, which means it will not be a half-day story. Anything that knocks baseball player Tim Tebow off the top of the trending list isn’t going away by the evening news, which ensures this story will continue.

Twitter Trending List in Washington, DC as of 10am EST

More worrisome than Twitter for Johnson partisans is that they tend to be very well educated. Almost two-thirds of voters who say they will definitely vote for Johnson graduated from college (64%) and almost one-quarter (23%) went to graduate or professional school.

This is the highest percentage of any candidate tested in the poll (see below) and significantly more than the latest information we have from the latest Current Population Survey data on education attainment, which shows that 33% of U.S. adults hold a bachelor’s or higher degree.

Here is a chart of each candidate’s support by respondent’s education.

Presidential Ballot Question — Courtesy of The George Washington University Battleground Poll

If you are going to blow a question that highly educated people might know on an elite bipartisan morning show focused on politics, it’s best if they aren’t your supporters. For Johnson, they are his base.

Further polling will be conducted daily by through the remaining 60 days of the campaign and the debates are going to be a big part of who wins. Until this morning, the answer to the question What is Gary Johnson? may have been, based on our polling and Twitter data, the third person in the debate. After Aleppo, it’s unlikely he’s going to make it there.

If you enjoyed this article, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium. Follow me on Twitter @michaelcohen. You can follow our research on our website or on Twitter @PEORIAProject, which is funded by a generous grant from Mark R. Shenkman. To learn more about the Graduate School of Political Management visit our website or follow us on Twitter @GSPMgwu.

Disclosures: (1) My father’s side of the family emigrated from Aleppo at the end of the 19th century. (2) As a 3x graduate of the University of Florida I am a huge fan of Tim Tebow so kindly hold your comments about him.



Michael Cohen

Founder of Cohen Research Group. Publisher of Congress in Your Pocket. Lecturer at Johns Hopkins. Author of Modern Political Campaigns