Can the Libertarian Party Get 1 Percent of the Vote?

L.P. nominee Gary Johnson fights to reach single digits.


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). 

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.