Some third party candidates brush aside the pundits and the polls. They cling to a few examples of third party success—Jesse Ventura!—to auger for their victories. North Carolina's Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Michael Munger doesn't do that.
"At this point, I expect between to receive between 3 and 4 percent of the vote," Munger explains as he drives up I-40 to a speech in Raleigh. "What usually happens to our candidates is that we head on a sharp downward trajectory as the election approaches. I'm doing a little better than that. But that's what almost always happens."
Munger has to think like this. Since 2000, he has been the chair of Duke University's department of political science. He's written or co-authored four books on policy, and was a fixture on local news before he got into this race. "I got to know the producers," he says, "before I needed them to book me."
Munger is one of the LP's most prominent candidates in what, as the campaign grinds into its final week, is looking like an above-average year for the party. It's a comedown from the expectations of May and June, when former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) secured the party's presidential nomination and talked about raising $30 million and making a Perot-like breakthrough. But there were reasons why that didn't happen: some predictable, some not.
Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) shotgun political marriage to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ended some of the wavering of libertarian-leaning Republicans. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) never gave the Barr campaign his stamp of approval, and eventually endorsed the Constitution Party's candidate after he felt that Barr slighted him. And no third party is blowing the doors off this year: The race between the first black presidential candidate and a war hero who chose the second female running mate in history has sucked out the energy from the non-aligned movement.
At the state level, the LP is having an easier time of it. Membership is up slightly. The intra-party sniping of the presidential race (one defeated candidate was leaking internal LP documents as recently as last week) hasn't trickled down. There are candidates who don't associate with Barr and candidates, like Munger, who have seen him pump up the profile of the LP.
"Having a complete ticket is a huge help," Munger says. "Bob Barr's somebody people have heard of. Half of the polls here include him. That gives people the sense that libertarians are a real party, and that it's not just me out here."
Munger ruminates on that for a moment. "I have had people come up to me and say, ‘I'm a Bob Barr libertarian, not a Munger libertarian.' But that tells you they're looking into it!"
Privately, Libertarians suggest that Munger is running one of the ten best Libertarian campaigns in the country. His competition comes from state House candidates in New Hampshire such as Morey Straus and Brendan Kelly, Vermont attorney general candidate Karen Kerin (who secured the support of the LP and the Republicans), and a pack of candidates in Indiana, Nevada, and the "new south." Georgia Senate candidate Alan Buckley, suddenly a factor in a tight race, was called a "viable third option" with "a message of responsibility that both parties would do well to heed." Indiana House candidate Eric Schansberg got a quasi-endorsement from the Indianapolis Star: "[A] prime example of how far the Libertarian Party has advanced in Indiana."
Munger is an example of how the LP can grow in a state not historically susceptible to third parties—unless they were led by George Wallace. He makes good copy, but not in the colloidal silver-chugging way. The closest he comes to eccentricity is his habit of growing his hair out for two years, cutting it, donating the results to Locks of Love, and starting the cycle all over again. That's as weird as it gets. The Munger campaign is a focused, four-issue affair that the candidate can elucidate in seven words: "bringing in business, controlling annexation, infrastructure, and education."
Conveniently enough, that's what Democrat Bev Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory are talking about. Munger has eschewed the strategy of debating libertarian philosophy with his rivals, or trying to insert discussions of pet issues into the race. In debates, he tries to pull McCrory to his side on charter schools, "the first thing I'd do in education." He tries to keep Perdue, a typically cautious North Carolina Democrat, on his side on social issues. That's hampered his progress.
"One reason I haven't been allowed in all the debates," Munger explains, "is that I'm taking votes from the Democrats. Sixty percent of my supporters are voting for Obama. I'll talk about gay marriage, and Perdue isn't, or doesn't want to."
But another reason why Munger has been marginalized is more fair. When asked how many offices Munger's campaign has opened, North Carolina LP Chairwoman Barbara Howe says, "my kitchen table, his kitchen table, and his home office." Munger has repackaged the libertarian message, sold it in a manner that appeals to state opinion makers. He has not built a political machine or a popular movement.
Instead, Munger is relying on a media charm offensive and a pack of volunteers. He's tapped the remnants of the Ron Paul movement in the state. "A lot of Ron Paul meet-ups were of Republicans who only became Republicans to vote for him." (Paul pulled 7.2 percent of the vote in the May primary.) He's also coordinated with B.J. Lawson, a Ron Paul Republican running for Congress in the gerrymandered district that includes Durham. They agree on one of the basic questions of libertarian politics, post-Paul. "Are we proud of our irrelevance," Munger says, "or do we try to become relevant?"
The quest for relevance this year involves getting that 3 or 4 percent of the vote, securing ballot access for next time, and becoming a real political party that the Democrats and Republicans both have to adapt to. It's the goal of the Barr campaign, only localized, slower, and a little more realistic in the final week.
"As I make appearances I'm organizing counties, I'm coordinating volunteers, and I'm building a database," Munger says. "The day after the election, we start organizing the next campaign."
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.