Could Disgruntled Republicans Take Over the Libertarian Party? Sure, if They Could Convince Around 500 of the Types of People Who Attend State L.P. Conventions and Get Sent as Delegates to the National Convention

So, that's not very likely.


As I discuss in my forthcoming print feature on the Libertarian Party (L.P.) presidential race in the July issue of Reason (subscribe now!), the L.P. controls one of the most high-value and, in some ways, low-cost prizes in political history: likely near-universal ballot access for presidency of the world's mightiest nation, and all you need to do to win is get (this year) likely around 500 or so people (since that will constitute around half plus one of the total delegation) gathered in one convention hotel over one weekend to pick you as their favorite.


No complicated six months or a year of national campaigning and spending and caucusing and primary elections needed. Every delegate at that convention for the L.P. can do whatever they want with their vote, not bound by any straw polls or mass popular vote or caucus result.

That fact, combined with the constant rumbling of rich and powerful Republicans unhappy with their party's apparent choice Donald Trump, have led to lots of talk of a "conservative third party" run, or independent run, or just picking up the already existing L.P.'s ballot apparatus for a nevertrump Republican.

As I detailed back when Michael Bloomberg was talking about it months ago, it's still not absolutely impossible for the independent presidential candidate part to work.

Because of state ballot access requirements, a lot of organizing and spending would need to start happening, like, right now. Still, 37 states don't have ballot access deadlines for independent presidential candidates until August or September.

We have no reason to believe anyone is actively trying from the disaffected Republican end, though.

So, what about that Libertarian Party? It stands up for liberty and the Constitution and the free market and low taxes and a bunch of things that "conservative Republicans" claim to stand for.

Its convention is a few weeks from now. Its delegates have been mostly selected and are in many cases trying to figure out how to afford to get themselves to Orlando and find lodging there. It has many people vying for the prize, though most agree the only seriously likely contenders at this point are incumbent candidate Gary Johnson (the former Republican governor of New Mexico who won the L.P. its highest ever raw vote total of 1.27 million in 2012), movement activist Austin Petersen, and notorious antivirus software pioneer John McAfee.

But if any outsider decided to join the L.P. and present himself as a candidate in Orlando over Memorial Day weekend, he or she could still win if he or she first gets just 30 delegates to place him or her in official nomination and then of course win that bare majority of delegate votes.

An interview with the national L.P's Chair Nicholas Sarwark at Slate today explains why that isn't very likely. Excerpts: 

A Mitt Romney, or a Rick Perry, or a Tom Coburn, or anybody could join the party, probably get on star power alone 30 people to nominate them, but then you have to get a majority of close to 1,000 Libertarians to decide that you're Libertarian enough for them. It's that retail side that really is our best protection against any sort of takeover.

To put a finer point on what Sarwark is saying, the type of dedicated Libertarian Party member who attends state conventions, wants to be sent as a delegate to national and convinces his fellow state members to send him, tends to be quite serious about their libertarianism, and will want a candidate who can convince them that said candidate believes in the libertarian message pretty strongly and can sell it purely.

That's not necessarily so across the board, but it's a good enough bet that half the delegates wouldn't want to hand over their prize to any old anti-Trump right-winger. Especially after the Bob Barr experience in 2008, when the former GOP congressman mostly let the L.P. down as their candidate.

But couldn't a serious national Republican type of appeal to conservatives possibly get the L.P. in the debates and in the real playing field of national politics? Sarwark:

That theory and that scenario would probably be attractive to some number of delegates. I don't think it would be attractive to a majority of delegates sufficient to get the nomination, precisely because if you go back to '08 we nominated Bob Barr, a former congressman, with exactly those thoughts … and it didn't work out that way. We actually got lower vote totals compared to other Libertarian candidates with less résumé. 

Sarwark says that whether or not it could work, these angry Republicans don't really seem to mean it:

The Never Trump people, while they're very serious as far as how they feel, they've never been serious in terms of getting anything done. We've been doing this for 45 years and we understand the logistics of how you get 50-state ballot access. And there was not a single move from a Kristol, or an [Erick] Erickson, or a Romney, or anybody to do any of the things that would be necessary….

If you're Never Trump and you're Never Hillary, the Libertarian Party is going to present you the only option for every American in this country. So you can pick it or you can not, but this idea that you're going to have some sort of quixotic bid from Romney or something as an independent, it's just—it's batshit basically…

The sweet irony is that it's the very Republicans that are currently gnashing their teeth who set up these horrible ballot access barriers to try to suppress the Libertarian Party in the first place. So I hope they're enjoying that.

The likes of a Ben Sasse or Mitt Romney, loudly anti-Trump, ever even endorsing the L.P. is quite unlikely, Sarwark thinks:

They have sunk cost in the existence of the Republican Party, which is a joke. I mean, any party that can encompass Donald Trump and Rand Paul is not a party that means anything. They'll never walk away. They'll never endorse somebody outside of the Republican Party. And if I had to bet, as much as I'd like Mr. Romney to endorse the Libertarian candidate once we have a nominee, I would bet he won't. I would bet he'd rather sit on his hands. Because he's dedicated to the party moreso than to the country. Same with Sasse. He's just trying to get a name for himself by going through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief in public, but he's not going to do anything. That's the take that I have right now and I'd be happy to be proven wrong. 

I strongly suspect Sarwark is correct on all that.