In the March 1981 issue of reason, columnist Murray Rothbard was unsparing in his assessment of the Libertarian Party's presidential ticket. “After an unprecedented hype and a highly expensive campaign,” Rothbard wrote, “it managed to corral only one percent of the vote. It is nowhere near its goal of becoming a third major party.” Little did anyone know that the disappointing 1 percent finish achieved by attorney Ed Clark and his running mate, industrial titan David Koch, would mark the Libertarian Party’s presidential high water mark.
Since its inception in 1972 the Libertarian Party (L.P.) has participated in 10 presidential elections, cracking the single-digit threshold just that once (with a scant 1.06 percent). Popular libertarian movement figures such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) in 1988 and investment guru Harry Browne in 1996 and 2000 never managed to take even 0.5 percent of the popular vote. Paul was the last L.P. candidate to finish as high as third place; Ralph Nader has outpolled the party’s nominee in every election after 1992.
In the last cycle, Bob Barr seemed positioned to change all that. The 2008 nominee, a former Georgia congressman and recent defector from the GOP, arguably had the highest national profile of any L.P. candidate in at least two decades. His running mate, enthusiastic Las Vegas pitchman Wayne Allyn Root, wooed some Libertarians with his vision of mainstreaming the party into electoral relevance. The emergence of Ron Paul as a significant national force within the GOP suggested that the lure of political libertarianism was stronger than ever.
But even before the election, the nomination of two longtime Republicans (both of whom had previously favored policies, such as the war on drugs and the Defense of Marriage Act, abhorred by many Libertarians) left the party deeply divided, a rift that was on full display at a contested and controversial nominating convention. When Election Day came, the Barr/Root ticket received just 0.4 percent of the vote—the party’s highest percentage since 1996 and its highest raw vote total since 1980, but still a disappointment. Both candidates ended up going back to the GOP, with Barr endorsing Newt Gingrich during the 2012 election cycle and Root backing Mitt Romney.
With this track record, old Libertarian Party hands knew better than to get prematurely optimistic about presidential politics. Still, on paper, the 2012 L.P. ticket may be the strongest one yet. Two-term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Orange County, California, Superior Court Judge Jim Gray may not have the money of the Clark campaign, the devoted following of Paul, or the financial chops of Browne, but Johnson has statewide executive experience, something no previous candidate could claim.
Even though Johnson was running for president as a Republican as recently as December 2011, he has a strong libertarian résumé as the first sitting governor to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. (Gray, too, is well known as an early, risk-taking legalizer.) Although he has largely flown under the radar of the national political media, Johnson has been making the rounds on cable news and talk radio for the last three years, improving his occasionally wooden stump speech, and running under a memorable campaign slogan: “Be Libertarian With Me Just This One Time.” After years of turmoil and bitterness, the L.P. convention whisked Johnson and Gray through the party’s nominating process with hardly any fuss.
The country, meanwhile, has only gotten more receptive to libertarian ideas since 2008, a trend made manifest by the populist anti-government Tea Party movement. Ron Paul made a strong showing in the 2012 GOP nominating process, garnering almost twice as much support as he did in the 2008 contest. A bruising round of rules fights at the Republican National Convention left many activists from Paul’s Revolution and the Tea Party searching for more ideologically sympatico places to park their enthusiasm.
Despite the upsurge in skepticism of government, both major parties continue to sell different flavors of deficit spending, foreign interventionism, and entitlement denialism. Johnson campaigns daily against all three. At press time the Libertarian Party ticket was on the ballot in 47 states and the District of Columbia, more than in 2008.
So is this the election where the Libertarian candidate can finally break the 1 percent barrier for the first time in more than three decades? With Mitt Romney and Barack Obama running a close race, will libertarian voters and their ideas tip the outcome in either direction, and if so what will be the ramifications? And most of all, what would it mean for the L.P.—which currently counts only one elected state legislator in the entire country—if the Johnson/Gray ticket doesn’t make a strong showing with so much going for it in 2012?
The 1.06 Percent
In the weeks before the election, reason asked several longtime L.P. observers to sketch out how we should read Johnson’s vote tallies on November 7 and what they might mean for a party entering its fifth decade in American politics.
Johnson himself was understandably cagey on the subject. “I don’t want to discount that this still can’t be won, because this is the Internet, this is 2012,” he told me in September in Durham, New Hampshire. Acknowledging his “reluctance to answer what is an acceptable showing,” Johnson vowed that “we’ll have momentum on Election Day. Does that equate to 2 percent or 12 percent or 42 percent? I don’t know.”
Jim Gray is less shy. “We are running to win,” Gray told Reason TV in July. “That was the condition when I agreed to be Gary Johnson’s running mate, and he’s completely with that. No moral victories, no ‘Let’s make a good showing.’ And the secret to that is, we have to poll at 15 percent by the end of September. If we do, we’ll be a part of the presidential debates, and all the rules will change.”
Some Libertarians say the long-shot hope for the party this year is 5 percent of the popular vote, since that would ensure federal funding for the 2016 campaign. One of those optimists is none other than 1980 nominee Ed Clark. “I expect that he will do four or five times better than I did,” Clark told me during the Libertarian Party convention in Las Vegas this May. “I think this year is like 1980, which was a tremendous year for Libertarians. Everybody was turned off by the government because of Vietnam, people were turned off by the inflation of the ’70s, and people in California were turned on to the thought of small government by Proposition 13. That made a lot of people available for another alternative in 1980. I think there is the same potential here. I think Gary has the personality, the character, and the background to do it.”
The last third-party candidate to pass the 5 percent threshold was Ross Perot, who got 8.4 percent in 1996. The last one to earn even 1 percent of the popular vote was the Green Party’s Ralph Nader, who garnered 2.7 percent in 2000 (even though he appeared on six fewer ballots than Harry Browne). A Reason-Rupe poll of 1,006 adults in mid-September found that Gary Johnson would receive 6 percent of the vote when included on the ballot (compared to 49 percent for President Barack Obama and 42 percent for Mitt Romney).