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How political activists who don’t want to vote for Trump or Clinton look at the presidential race

The Clinton and Trump campaigns would be wise to think about people like Jeff Johnson and Steve Timmer if they want to win.

Hillary Clinton speaking at a Women for Hillary campaign event in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

As a lifelong fan of the Vikings, I know what it’s like to watch your team come up short.

Republican Jeff Johnson and Democrat Steve Timmer can empathize. As early supporters of presidential candidates not named Trump or Clinton, Johnson, a Hennepin County Commissioner, and Timmer, a retired lawyer from Edina, find themselves watching the presidential campaign much the way I spend Super Bowl Sunday — rooting for somebody else’s team.

Like the other committed supporters of presidential candidates who failed to win the nomination, Johnson and Timmer are the kind of people who can nevertheless play a critical role in ensuring the nominee of their party wins in November. They toil in the political trenches for their candidates and help message against the opposing party’s.

So while much of that messaging in the final weeks of the campaign will be targeted toward winning over independent voters, the Clinton and Trump campaigns would be wise not to ignore people like Johnson and Timmer. 

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Johnson served as the state chair of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, giving Rubio the only statewide win during his battle for Republican nomination. After Rubio ended his campaign, Johnson threw his support to Ted Cruz. After Cruz ended his campaign, Johnson found himself with a choice.

“In my mind, I have to chose one of two people, because I want my vote to matter, and I don’t think it does if you vote for a third-party [candidate] this year,” said Johnson.

Johnson admits Trump “was not his first, second, or third choice.” And yet, the GOP nominee is his “number one in a choice of two” current presidential candidates.

And while he has concerns with Trump’s personality and character, Johnson believes change is desperately needed in Washington, and that Trump can be a more credible agent for change than Clinton. “Trump will disrupt the status quo,” said Johnson. “I think a lot of people are looking for sweeping change in how government operates; only Trump will bring that.” 

Trump’s performance in the first debate against Clinton disappointed Johnson, who felt the nominee was too easily baited into talking about the issues Clinton wanted to discuss.

Johnson, who ran for governor in 2014 and could be a candidate for statewide office again, has taken on the unofficial role of keeping Republicans in Minnesota focused on the larger goal: defeating Clinton, the gist of which was summed in an op-ed he wrote for the Star Tribune last month. While Trump can “be offensive and obnoxious,” he wrote, “the alternative is far worse.”

Over in the Democratic Party, Timmer hasn’t been as easily moved. A passionate supporter of Bernie Sanders, he has yet to be won over by Hillary Clinton.

When I asked Timmer — who blogs at left.mn and is one of the hosts of a weekly gathering of Minnesota progressives called Drinking Liberally — if he was voting for Clinton this November, he told me it “was a very interesting question.”

“I can’t figure out what I’m going to do,” said Timmer. “Trump is an unacceptable choice to me and I’m afraid Hillary is nearly so.” 

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Timmer then said, “but I may, probably, perhaps, be persuaded in the end to vote for Clinton.”

Sanders was attractive to Timmer because of the candidate’s emphasis on income inequality, though there were other policy initiatives supported by Sanders that also drew Timmer in. “He is the non-establishment candidate, and we need a non-establishment candidate,” he said. 

Both Johnson and Timmer watched portions of the first debate between Clinton and Trump, thought neither could make it through the whole thing. 

Timmer acknowledged that Trump made some good points in the debate about trade issues, but said he “didn’t make them in the most artful way.”

He also thinks Sanders might have been treated differently than Clinton by Trump in a one-on-one debate. “I suspect that if Bernie was on the stage, he would not have been treated so dismissively by Donald Trump,” he said. “Clearly there was some misogyny going on, and that was regrettable, but [Clinton] stood up to it very well I thought.”

But Timmer also believes his preferred candidate would have done well in such a forum. “I still think that Bernie would have made a better case on some things than Clinton did,” he said.

What will it take for Clinton to win the support of a thoughtful Democrat like Timmer before the Election? “I think that she has to persuade me that she is genuinely progressive on economic issues,” he said.  

Clinton and Trump, said Timmer, are both “champions of economic status quo,” adding  “and that is disturbing to someone who is interested in change.”