If you want to see an experienced candidate in the White House, you might have a chance to cast a vote in November for a ticket with a combined four terms of experience running governments. But if you care about these things, you might not be interested in voting for the Libertarian Party: the party that could be running such a ticket, but which, as a matter of principle, has the least faith in government at all.
When the Libertarian Party meets in Orlando over Memorial Day weekend, it’s likely that its 2012 nominee Gary Johnson will secure the nomination. It’s also possible that the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico’s preferred running mate, former two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts William Weld, will be picked for the vice presidential slot.
Neither of these things is by any means assured, but Johnson and Weld could have a real opportunity this November to run a real race against two of the least-well-liked presidential candidates in recent history.
In a Morning Consult poll released this morning, Johnson gets 10 percent of the vote in a Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton matchup. That’s an impressive haul, and one that (if he made it through November) would qualify the Libertarian Party for federal election funding in 2020.
But the all-important number right now is 15 percent. That’s the threshold to participate in the fall debates — a standard no third party has met since it was instituted in 2000. The Morning Consult poll shows Johnson isn’t there yet. And maybe he wouldn’t be able to get there.
As the Libertarian Party tries to figure out how best to take advantage of the opportunity the two major parties appear to be handing them, they’re going to face some tough questions about what kind of coalition they could build to get to 15 percent (or more) of the vote — and what kind of libertarians that coalition would be.
Libertarians used to have a home in the Republican Party. Not anymore.
For a couple of generations, many libertarians have considered the Republican Party to be the natural home of their movement. They’ve been an accepted part of the conservative coalition forged by intellectuals like William F. Buckley in the mid-20th century, then brought to the electoral fore by candidates like Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Republicans don’t agree with libertarians on social issues, and many of them are more interventionist on foreign policy than libertarians might like. But for many libertarians, the cost of routinely supporting people who disagreed with them on many issues was worth the benefits: Libertarians had a seat at the table in the Republican Party, and Republican candidates could reliably be counted on to reduce government in at least some regards.
Though the libertarian-Republican alliance has been a happy marriage since the days of the Cold War (when the fight against Communism justified foreign intervention on libertarian grounds), in 2016, the Republican Party has nominated the candidate of libertarian nightmares.
John Sommers II/Getty Images Hi!
Not only does Donald Trump want to expand government in ways that you could describe as “conservative” but not “libertarian” — like deporting all unauthorized immigrants from the US, and temporarily barring Muslims from entry — but he threatens to erode the few victories libertarians have made in the Republican coalition.
“Free trade” had become a consensus Republican ideal? Too bad: Donald Trump wants to reinstitute prohibitive tariffs and trade wars. Republicans were beginning to express concern over government seizure of private lands via eminent domain? Too bad: Donald Trump loves him some eminent domain. Republicans were firmly committed to a “free-market” solution on health insurance? Too bad: Donald Trump promises to guarantee health care to everyone, in a bigger, better, shinier way than the Affordable Care Act ever could. (And then there’s the promise to expand libel laws and go after publications that criticize him; the apparent disregard for federalism or checks and balances; etc., etc., etc.)
The Libertarian Party could seize the moment to grow — but does it want to?
As long as libertarians had a home in the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party only appealed to a narrow slice of people who described themselves as libertarians. It was too purist for the most practical libertarians (who could just work with Republicans). And it was far too practical for libertarians who believe that the current electoral system is so compromised that participating in it at all is a waste of time. (Certainly, you can try to participate in a system as a way of pointing out it’s corrupt — one of the Libertarian Party’s 18 candidates for president hasn’t registered as a candidate with the FEC, because he believes “it lacks constitutional authority” — but it poses certain practical difficulties.)
But if the Republican Party isn’t a home for libertarians anymore? That might open up some opportunities.
The timing is good: the “LP” (as it’s known, in the same way the Republican Party is known as the GOP) could be on the verge of a breakthrough. After several cycles as one of many minor parties in American politics, it’s arguably reached a tier of its own — more robust than the Green and Constitution Parties (as well as the other minor parties hovering around the periphery of national politics) while still insignificant in comparison to the Democratic and Republican behemoths.
If they’re serious about taking on Trump, though, they’ll need to engage in some dreaded party politics — and at some point “building a coalition” ends up colliding with “maintaining our principles as a party.” That’s true in any party — just ask Ted Cruz supporters — but the Libertarian Party particularly has something of a reputation for putting the principles first.
Gary Johnson might have a leg up on Republicans with experience — but he hasn’t secured the Libertarian nomination yet
One of the themes of Johnson’s 2012 campaign was “Be Libertarian with me, for one election.” At the time, the theme made a certain amount of sense — there were certainly plenty of people who weren’t excited about Mitt Romney or another four years of Obama. But it’s not surprising that he’s recycled the slogan for 2016, because it fits this cycle even better: it’s a perfect description of the opportunity a Trump/Clinton campaign poses for the right third-party candidate.
But is Gary Johnson that candidate?
Johnson is certainly the frontrunner going into this weekend’s convention. He has the support of the majority of Libertarian Party members (over 60%, according to a survey conducted with the Libertarian National Committee last week); he’s won a few straw polls; and insiders think he’s likely to get the nod.
All that doesn’t mean as much as you think. Unlike most delegates to the major parties’ conventions, basically none of the delegates at the Libertarian National Convention are pledged to support a particular candidate. It’s entirely possible that the 500 delegates in Orlando will pick someone else.
The field isn’t exactly wide open. Of the 17 other candidates running for the nomination, only 2 are considered “top-tier.” (That said, it’s not like the Libertarian Party has never bypassed the “frontrunners” entirely and picked a surprise candidate from the back of the pack.) But each of the two major challengers makes a strong case that the party shouldn’t nominate Johnson again — and that the party has a better shot at viability if it builds a coalition in a different way.
Mark Wilson/Getty This is the only photo Getty had of libertarian activist turned Libertarian presidential candidate Austin Petersen. I swear I’m not trying to make him look like a single-issue (toy) gun nut.
The most serious challenge to Johnson is posed by Austin Petersen, a 35-year-old activist with a lot of experience at the nexus of the libertarian and conservative movements (including stints at Koch-funded voter-mobilization group FreedomWorks and Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show on the Fox Business Network). Petersen’s libertarian bona fides are solid, and he’s a viable presidential candidate from within the party — something that appeals to some of the delegates. (He was the only non-Johnson candidate to get more than 10 percent of support in the Libertarian National Committee-affiliated poll of members last week.)
Where Petersen really offers a contrast to Johnson, though, is in the electoral coalition he promises to assemble. The theory of Johnson’s candidacy is that neither Trump nor Clinton can appeal to socially liberal, economically conservative voters — the traditional libertarian sweet spot, just bigger this cycle than in past years.
If libertarians really want to go after the #NeverTrump conservatives, the biggest electoral hole to fill is the hard-core evangelical Christians Ted Cruz built his coalition around. Those conservatives aren’t just economically conservative, but socially conservative as well — in fact, many of the highest-profile never-Trumpers (like Erick Erickson and Glenn Beck) are people who put social conservatism first. They’d be unlikely to warm up to someone like Johnson.
Petersen, meanwhile, is pro-life, which could make him an acceptable candidate to the Ericksons of the world. He’s able to speak in the language of the founding fathers and the constitution in a way that appeals to them. (Beck’s said that Petersen makes his heart “skip a beat”.)
And then there’s John McAfee, the founder of the antivirus software company of the same name, who’s something between a serious contender and a wild card. McAfee doesn’t do that well in internal Libertarian Party straw polls, but he’s gotten a lot more press (especially in liberal and “mainstream” outlets) than Petersen has — and almost as much as Johnson.
McAfee’s certainly a colorful character — while Gary Johnson was recovering from his 2012 loss, McAfee was on the run from Guatemalan and Belizean authorities who wanted him for questioning in the murder or his neighbor. That makes him an especially appealing subject for those who think he fits a certain stereotype (guns! drugs! encryption!) of what a “wacky libertarian” is supposed to be.
But that wackiness is strategic: McAfee’s pitch to the Libertarian Party is that, in the age of Donald Trump, they need a candidate who can capture the public’s attention. The way McAfee sees it, the Libertarian Party can’t get to 15 percent in the polls if they can’t get press coverage. Gary Johnson sounds exciting on paper — he climbs mountains and invests in the pot industry! — but he’s a pretty boring speaker. McAfee, whatever else you can say about him, is certainly not boring. And who knows, maybe the delegates in Orlando will find that an appealing gamble to take.
Ward would probably be the most experienced VP candidate on a national ticket — but there are some hurdles for him
About ten days before the Orlando convention, Johnson announced his preferred running mate: William Weld, who served two terms as the Republican governor of Massachusetts in the 1990s.
That’s not as presumptuous as it sounds: other libertarian candidates (including McAfee) have also chosen their preferred vice-presidential nominees in advance of anyone actually getting nominated.
Furthermore, even if Johnson does win the nomination, he doesn’t actually get to pick his own VP. It’s a separate vote at the convention — and there’s nothing stopping the delegates from picking Johnson as their presidential nominee, and someone other than Weld as their vice-presidential nominee. (Hypothetically, the reverse could also happen — the party could nominate a Petersen/Weld ticket, for instance — but it’s not clear whether Weld would stay in the VP race if Johnson didn’t win the top slot.)
Johnson’s naming of Weld in advance carried some serious benefits. It’s caused mainstream pundits to take a second look at the Libertarian ticket — thanks to the whole “more executive experience than either major party has” thing — which could influence pollsters to start listing them among the options in major polls. And Weld could be a substantial fundraising asset — his lobbying clients include casino magnate Steve Wynn. (There have been rumors that Charles Koch would donate millions of dollars to a Johnson/Weld ticket, but those rumors don’t appear to be founded just yet.)
Aram Boghosian/Boston Globe via Getty William Weld (right) with good buddy and lobbying client Steve Wynn.
But while the Libertarian Party was able to accept Johnson as a Republican refugee last cycle — despite some deviations from libertarian philosophy (Johnson supports drone strikes, for example) — swallowing a Johnson/Weld ticket might be a bit trickier.
Weld was inarguably too libertarian to stay in the Republican Party: even in the 1990s, he lost out on the ambassadorship to Mexico because Senator Jesse Helms objected to Weld’s support for broad drug legalization. But that doesn’t necessarily make him libertarian enough for the Libertarian Party (he advocated for and signed gun-control bills as Massachusetts governor). More importantly, being a “small-L libertarian” (as self-described libertarians who aren’t affiliated with the LP put it) doesn’t make him loyal to the Libertarian Party itself.
In 2006, Weld ran for governor of New York — in the primaries for both the Libertarian and Republican Parties (thanks to the state’s “fusion ticket” system (on which a candidate can run on the ballot lines of more than one party). He won the LP nomination, and reportedly promised to stay in the race for the Libertarians regardless of what happened in the GOP race. But when he lost the Republican nomination, he dropped out of the race entirely — leaving the Libertarians to scramble for another candidate, and (apparently) going back on his word.
Just this year, Weld endorsed Republican candidate John Kasich before Kasich dropped out of the race, and he’s said that he wouldn’t be running for Johnson’s VP if Kasich were still a candidate. (That’s both insult and injury for Libertarian Party insiders: Kasich signed a law that basically kicked the Libertarian candidate for Ohio governor off the ballot in 2014.)
Weld’s trying to assuage delegates’ concerns before the convention; shortly after he was named as Johnson’s proposed running mate, he wrote a Facebook note addressing some of the questions about his record (though he left out the 2006 New York mess). But the only way to know how persuasive Weld’s outreach has been — or how deep the concerns about him run to begin with — is to see what happens in Orlando.
How big is the Libertarian opportunity in 2016, really?
The LP has lucked out on timing. Their convention is happening at a point where both voters and pundits are beginning to realize who, exactly, they’re stuck with as major-party nominees — and trying to come to terms with a choice between two candidates whose approval ratings are underwater. That’s not a bad time to make some news by naming the candidate who could be a third option.
The Libertarian Party has a chance to be the only minor party on the ballot in all 50 states. That is by no means a sure thing — Johnson was on the ballot in 48 states (plus DC) in 2012; the party is trying to get on all 50 states’ ballots in 2016, but it’s currently only assured a spot on 32. That’s better than any other third party, but, again, it’s a battle Trump and Clinton won’t have to fight.
And because both Johnson and Weld are known quantities to Washington insiders and pundits, they could find themselves getting mentioned on cable news and Sunday talk shows as “the alternative” for voters sick of Clinton and Trump.
At the end of the day, though, the road to the general election travels through the debates. The road to the debates travels through the polls, with their 15-percent threshhold. Even in polls that ask about Johnson, like the Morning Consult poll, he’s not getting to 15 percent. And he’s not doing nearly as well in polls that don’t ask about him.
If you think that there’s something of a vicious cycle here — you have to be named in polls to poll well, and you have to poll well to be considered a major candidate, and you have to be a major candidate to be named in polls — you’d be right. But them’s the breaks. The question is whether naming a ticket with more gravitas than the two major-party tickets combined will be enough to break that cycle.
And this is where it gets tricky. The constituency for gravitas is cable-news pundits — not necessarily voters. The appeal of voting for Gary Johnson is that he’s an alternative to two unlikeable candidates who doesn’t inherently seem like a protest candidate — a way to vote for a third party without feeling like you’re throwing your vote away. It’s difficult to measure how appealing that is, or to game out exactly to whom it appeals.
The fact of the matter is that, even as many libertarians feel abandoned by Republicans, most Americans don’t actually have consistent preferences for libertarian government. Many of the people who enthusiastically supported Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 enthusiastically support Donald Trump in 2016 — it turns out that what they liked in Ron Paul wasn’t his libertarianism, but his opposition to NAFTA (and immigration) and his no-hoots-giving attitude. Indeed, Trump’s populist platform is well tailored to the constituency of voters not represented by either major party — he just happens to be doing it on a major-party ticket.
The third-party candidate America deserves?
If the Libertarian Party selects Johnson and Weld as its ticket in 2016, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens next. They’re both extremely well qualified, but as Rick Perry and John Kasich and Scott Walker can tell you, being an experienced chief executive doesn’t open as many doors in a presidential election as you might think.
The challenges facing any third party in American politics are enormous. And from one angle, the 2016 Libertarian ticket might be a way to test the ceiling for a third party — how much support the system allows a minor party to get even in relatively ideal circumstances.
But from another angle, it might be impossible for the Libertarian Party to actually attract a large chunk of the American electorate even by putting forward the most serious, conventional ticket possible. It’s the third party of American politics right now, but it isn’t necessarily the third party voters actually want.
For a party constantly torn between principle and viability, though, that might not be a terrible lesson to learn.