Third Parties

The Third Man

Political scientist Michael Munger carries the Libertarian banner in North Carolina


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.

NEXT: Economic Terrorism

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  1. Glad to see that the guy who played Tommy on “Eight Is Enough” is giving back by running for office.

  2. Nice hair.

    In other news, Stevens went down on all seven felony counts.

  3. gugernatorial?

    Well, hell, he looks Nordic/Germanic, so it may work.

  4. Is that the guy from “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters”?

  5. Ah, the speed of copy-editing on the Internets.

  6. Heh, “non-aligned movement.”

    You gotta admit, that’s awfully nice hair he’s donating.

    I haven’t seen a “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” reference in…uh…I think that might be the first.

  7. I was thinking a more neolithic Great American Hero.

  8. What is it with libertarian pols and atrocious 70’s California haircuts?

  9. LP … most promininent…

    “At this point, I expect between to receive between 3 and 4 percent of the vote,” Munger explains

    Hot damn!

  10. Most prominent hair? Dude, seriously, go to some place other than Supercuts (or your mom’s).

  11. Jody from Family Affair?

  12. The article doesn’t mention whether or not he drives a ’79 Camaro.

  13. I’m not sure Roman emperor locks properly convey the libertarian message, anyway.

  14. I think gmatts nailed it with Willie Aames

  15. Where’s Mr. French these days, anyway?

  16. As a woman, I find this thread very liberating. Nice to see a male candidate lambasted for his appearance once in awhile.

    In other news, I kind of regret having turned down the opportunity to be my local LP’s sacrificial-lamb candidate. I should’ve accepted just so I could teach America a lesson: “This is what a proper third-party hairstyle looks like, by God.”

  17. Yeah, I asked him “what’s up with the hair?” once, and got the shame smack-down. His wife survived cancer, so that’s why he’s doing it.

  18. Munger is on EconTalk this week. He is a very entertaining guest, as usual. And as a bonus, he is pictured there without the curly page boy.

  19. What!!

    No pron star mustache?

  20. war hero who chose the second female running mate in history

    Considering Palin will be the 3rd female to win an electoral vote, this seems unlikely.

  21. I love Mike Munger when he’s on Econtalk. He’s sensible, well grounded, supports the right baseball teams, etc. He looks like the Fifth Beach Boy, but he sounds like an economist.

    BTW, there have been at least two female Vice Presidential candidates prior to Palin. Surely the Weigel has heard of Toni Nathan?

  22. Is that the guy from “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters”?

    I think he looks like the guy on Gilligan’s Island that surfed from Hawaii then became the Gorton’s fisherman.

  23. Believe it or not, he’s walking on air.

  24. He looks like he should be named Chet.

  25. Nice to see a male candidate lambasted for his appearance once in awhile.

    While perhaps not lambasted, Barr got taken to task (justifiably, IMO) for his mustache.

    Also, I vote for “Greatest American Hero”.

  26. Out of curiosity, are there any Green Partiers lurking who would be willing to tell me if dialogue like this goes on internally there too? Are you constantly “on the verge of a breakthrough” into being “really acknowleged” and “influencing the major parties”?

    I’m curious, because I feel like LP is getting momentum, but I can’t stomach going through this election after election, and I’d like to know if I’m dying from confirmation bias.

  27. I’m not a greenie, but I have several friends who are. *NONE* of them vote for Green candidates, even in ultra-safe Democratic California. I think the GP is just a party for ultra-trendy Democrats to hang out in.

  28. Brief comment on the article: for the record Wallace lost in North Carolina to Nixon, although he did edge out Humphrey by 30,000 votes or so. Wallace received under a third of the vote in the state.

  29. On a lighter note, I thought this article was really good in terms of subject matter. I’d way rather hear about this guy than some GOP toady. Good job, Weigel!

    Kurt snaked me on the GAH reference. Stole my thunder, dammit!

  30. actually he cut his hair for the campaign, and now looks more normal. see his web site at

  31. Tony Nathan, the Alabama and Miami Dolphins running back was a woman?

  32. Did you know that the Greatest American Hero is Paul Drake’s son? How cool is that? I wonder if Hamilton (Ham) Burger’s son is an actor, too?

  33. actually he cut his hair for the campaign, and now looks more normal. see his web site at

    After seeing that, I have to go with the honkey-fro working better. Without it, he just looks creepily intense, but with the fro, he can pull off that vague snowboarder cool.

  34. That guy belongs in professional wrestling ring.
    Munger vs. the Polish hammer Ivan Putsky.
    If he campagined at matches as a wrestler he would do better then the 3 or 4 percent.

  35. This is stolen from the other Munger thread: Tom Baker.

  36. Did you know that the Greatest American Hero is Paul Drake’s son?

    Perry Mason’s gumshoe?

  37. THAT is the most prominent LP candidate?

    Oh my.

  38. I am very proud to have Munger running for governor in NC. He is a very well-spoken guy who doesn’t scare voters away. We finally had our first LP candidate in a few televised gubernatorial debates in NC, and he did very well. That is a first for us.

    Reason should have picked a newer photo for Munger. His cropped hair looks more professional.

    If we can get 2% with Munger or Barr, we’ll be able to stay on the ballot. The Dem in this race is a dingbat and the Rep candidate seems to like him.

    Munger is attracting a lot of liberals, and conservatives who don’t like the pork that the Rep guy has forced Charlotte taxpayers to swallow.

  39. Endorsement!

    From his web site:

    For the first time in its history, the Duke Chronicle has endorsed a Libertarian candidate. Voters are urged to use their vote to embolden Munger’s unique voice.

    The paper call Munger’s policy proposals “innovative” and it praised Dr. Munger for “unflinching criticism of the state’s corrupt political machines.”

    While noting that the state sponsored parties have erected legal walls around their duoply, the paper said “Munger’s campaign is more than a beachhead for third parties. Munger’s policy proposals are more progressive and rational…”

  40. Maybe if Munger didn’t look so much like a lion he’d be doing better

  41. SIV,

    Yep, that’s the one. He played Paul Drake, Jr. in the later Perry Mason TV movies.

  42. Total Oompa Loompa

  43. Now see here, old man. I am the Third Man. I didn’t take a bullet in a Vienna sewer just so some Tom Baker lookalike could move in on my racket.

  44. Brandybuck -Good call on Munger “sounds like and economist.” While he is a political science prof, Munger’s Ph.D. is in economics.

  45. You’re thinking of William Katt who is not the son of William Hopper (Paul Drake), but is the son of Barbara Hale who played Della Street.

  46. The Dem in this race is a dingbat

    You are being much too kind to Bev. In her world, the sky is a hideous powder blue power suit draping its loving arms across the world while spooning marmalade to the collected child she must think we all encompass.

  47. Yeah, I asked him “what’s up with the hair?” once, and got the shame smack-down. His wife survived cancer, so that’s why he’s doing it.


  48. Mike may be a goofy-looking dude, but have you seen Pat McCrory, his republican opponent? That guy looks like a real life Milhouse.

  49. BakedPenguin wrote:
    While perhaps not lambasted, Barr got taken to task (justifiably, IMO) for his mustache.

    Seems to be common, why … I have no idea.
    Another Lib pron star.
    It’s as if we’re stuck in the decade of the party’s formation.
    *shakes head*

  50. Don’t forget about B.J.Lawson, who is running for representative in North Carolina as well! He may be a republican but if you look at his website you’ll see he has libertarian values:

  51. Last night I watched a show on the documentary channel about the lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses.

    One of the professors interviewed was this guy. Actually, Munger was one of the very few willing to be interviewed and who acknowledged what a close-minded, PC bizarro-world US college campuses are…

    He was very well spoken and thoughtful. The LP could do much worse than Munger.

  52. Augur, not auger, unless they’re drilling for votes.

  53. I’m very pleased to be sharing the ballot (and running on the same platform) as Munger and Lawson.

  54. First off, any way that LP (or other third party) candidates can get attention is usually worth it, since there are always plenty of people willing to protest vote. Having funny hair is one way to do it, especially in these “so ironic it’s serious” times.

    Second, Barr has been a huge dissappointment. With all the media we have today, and the youtubes etc, he can’t get anything going other than the typical “not one of the two evils” line. Seriously, at least ask some celebrities, or have a youtube contest, or something, about why voting Barr is defensible. The Republicans are calling Obama a socialist all over, and the only real capitalist can’t find a national mic?

    Third, although more work, you guys should find and promote (or at least give credit to) some candidates that lean libertarian but aren’t running on the LP. Dean Barkley in a very close MN Senate race is polling at almost 20% with a limited govt platform. Last I checked, that’s better than 3%. By a lot.

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