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While hoping for a 5 percent breakthrough, most Libertarians I talked to see Ed Clark’s 1 percent mark as the more realistic goal for Gary Johnson. “Certainly if we pass any of our past presidential vote totals, that will be growth,” says Carla Howell, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee. “Anything above that is gravy.”
What it would mean to miss this target is heavily disputed. “If he gets under 1 percent, if he doesn’t beat Ed Clark, that would be disappointing,” says John Vaught LeBeaume, an adviser to the Johnson campaign (who previously worked for the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine).
Longtime Libertarian Party activist Bill Redpath, by contrast, sees a glass half full. “Getting more than 1.06 percent of the vote…if we set a record, that would be a serious accomplishment, particularly this year,” Redpath says. “It’s a difficult thing. It would certainly be an accomplishment for the Johnson campaign to top Clark’s vote percentage.”
Some party activists draw the over/under line of 2012 disappointment closer to Harry Browne’s 0.50 percent. “If we’re around half a percent, then I would probably consider taking a long, hard look at what we did,” David Blau, chair of the Massachusetts Libertarian Party, told me in September “If we get numbers that are that low, I would be kind of surprised given the campaign effort this cycle.”
Wes Benedict, former executive director of the Libertarian National Committee, says the goal in 2012 is looking “for improvement” over Bob Barr’s 523,000 votes. “I’d like to see us go significantly higher than that,” Benedict told me in late August “I think Johnson will get more than 523,000. I would love to see a million, but that’s going be tough.…Under 600,000 would be disappointing.”
Jillian Mack, finance director of the Ohio L.P., is optimistic that Johnson will clear that bar. “I think he’s going to do really well,” Mack told me in September. “If he doesn’t get among the top three presidential vote getters in the L.P.’s history, I would be shocked—not just disappointed, but shocked.…It wouldn’t change my affiliation. I am a Libertarian Party member; the other two parties are corrupt, and I don’t want anything to do with them. [But] it reinforces the idea that we need to try new tactics, new avenues, new methods of communication, new ideas, and nothing is off the table in terms of new concepts to reach out to people out there and let them know they have an alternative.”
The Long Game
The record-holding 1980 Libertarian Party campaign happened at a time when the L.P. was at or near the center of the freedom movement, a gathering place and rallying cause for libertarians of many stripes. That is no longer the case, says Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz, who served as the Clark campaign’s research director. “Today think tanks are at the center of the libertarian movement, and I don’t think that’s ideal,” Boaz told me in September. “I want a movement that is bigger than think tanks.”
The Libertarian Party suffered a series of fractures after the 1980 campaign, with many of the earlier activists (including Boaz, Rothbard, and Koch) leaving the scrum of party building to concentrate on other pursuits. Boaz, who calls the 1980 election “the most exciting period I’ve ever experienced,” likes Gary Johnson, but he’s not hopeful that the L.P. will break through in this election, or ever.
“It’s difficult to take an ideological party and move it beyond a certain level,” he says. “That’s what in 1980 we thought we were going to break out of. We were going to make an ideological party a major party, or at least a challenger, and it just turned out to be more difficult than we expected. When you get a reputation as a perennial minor party, it is difficult to attract enough people—talented people—and enough politically ambitious people to move beyond the minor-party world.”
Could Johnson be the one to break that cycle? “I don’t know,” Boaz says. “Certainly you would think it would be easier to run against Obama and Romney than it was to run against the non-offensive Carter and the libertarian-sounding Reagan. Maybe [Johnson] will get more votes than Ed Clark did, but I don’t feel confident about that.”
Johnson’s emphasis on staying the course through the next election cycle was a major selling point to activists and party officials who feel burned by the Barr/Root ticket. “When Gary first called the LNC [Libertarian National Committee] members in December, basically asking for our support if he was going to run for president, I was like, ‘Yeah, Gary, I already know who you are; I just got two questions for you,’ ” said LNC board member Brett Pojunis of Las Vegas. “ ‘If you don’t win in 2012 will you run again in 2016?’ He said ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I said ‘OK, great. If you don’t win in 2012, between 2012 and 2016, will you help me build the party?’ He said yes. So he’s got my undying support.”
Pojunis said “if we get less than 4.9 percent, 5 percent, that will be a bit disappointing, because I think we had every opportunity under the sun to achieve more.” Still, “If Gary keeps his promise—which I believe he will—he’s going to build this infrastructure up. We’re going to have the super PACs going, and a whole different Libertarian organization will be there to support him that we don’t have today.…We’re getting more organized, getting more professional people in the party. We’re working together. We’ve got all the cards stacked in our favor for 2016. If we can’t build the party in the next four years, that’s on us.”
L.P. Executive Director Howell is also bullish, particularly about the ways politics can reach people that policy wonkery cannot. “I think there’s many ways to advance liberty,” she says. “Most of them are good, and there’s no reason we can’t do them all. The most important one in my book is campaigns, because that’s what expands the movement; that’s what brings awareness to more people, as opposed to some organizations that preach to the choir of people who are already convinced that we need a much smaller government.…I am really looking forward to the years going forward. It’s going to be awesome.”
But as the race drags on, Ed Clark’s outlook for the 2012 cycle has dimmed. By September he was pulling back from his cheerier May assessment. “Romney has taken the edge off the anti-government feeling with all his social conservatism and militaristic foreign policy,” Clark told me. “I am not as optimistic as I once was.”
If the Libertarian Party can’t seize 1 percent of the vote at a time when dissatisfaction with big government is rampant, why are so many L.P. stalwarts acting so upbeat? Bill Redpath, who has been toiling for the L.P. since 1984, says he is looking at the long game. “The L.P. always has better access and runs more candidates than any other minor party in the United States,” Redpath said. “It’s just like clockwork, time and time again. That is an accomplishment in and of itself.…We are the top minor party in the USA. There’s nothing libertarian about the Democratic Party, and there’s very little libertarian about the Republican Party.”
The Libertarian Party may be the party of principle, but the real question is whether it can break the stigma of being the party of less than 1 percent.