Libertarian Party History: 2004, the Year The Guy No One Thought Would Win The Presidential Nomination Won

Historical analogies can be difficult, but we do know that Libertarian Party delegates can do unpredictable things.


The media has been treating former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as a near sure thing to win the Libertarian Party presidential nomination for months now. He is the only one running with major real world political experience, and in 2012 he won the Party their biggest vote total ever at 1.27 million.

Badnarik, YouTube

Since Johnson announced that he wants former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as his running mate, outsiders might reasonably assume that such a comparatively powerhouse team for a third party would not be passed by.

Johnson himself is generally scrupulously careful to point out that it is not a sure thing, and that he must win the votes of a majority of the 1,000 or so delegates likely to be in Orlando Memorial Day weekend for the Libertarian Party National Convention.

Politeness toward the prerogatives of the delegates is likely part of that, but if Johnson knows his L.P. history he knows he does face a real risk.

Candidates can come in to a Libertarian Party national convention with pretty much no one, including them, thinking they had much of a chance, and walk out a winner. 

It happened in 2004, when Michael Badnarik won his majority on a third ballot, beating the only two people thought serious contenders, former rock n' roll promoter and film producer Aaron Russo and radio talk show host Gary Nolan.

I wrote about that story at length as it happened in a Reason article called "The Libertarian Party Stays the Course."


The delegates voted for the man who was the most like them, who presented in the most professional way the modal opinions and views and style of a Libertarian Party activist—quiet, intense, no deviation from the catechism, more concerned with eternal ideological and philosophical verities than the political events of the day…

[Michael] Badnarik, who had been driving around the country visiting libertarians locally in a '99 Kia Sophia with the help of dedicated sidekick Jon Airheart, a former University of Texas student impressed with Badnarik's ability to sell the libertarian message retail, was thought of as a distant third at best. At times, as both Badnarik and Airheart told me, they'd find themselves with less than 10 bucks cash in the campaign kitty as they sold Badnarik's lectures and book and kept sending out e-newsletters asking fans in cyberspace for funds just so they could gas up and drive to the next town, the next state convention, the next campus lecture.

As of the beginning of April, his campaign—which he began on President's Day 2003—had collected around $33 thousand, compared to Nolan's $99 thousand as of the beginning of May….Badnarik himself was too tapped out even to afford a room at the upscale convention hotel, driving in instead from a Days Inn across town….

Now the LP has as its candidate a great Cinderella story—a man who quite literally was not expecting or prepared to win. He was out of money, had no campaign staff besides the loyal Airheart, and could afford so few signs that between the second and third ballots newly minted Badnarik lovers had to use bumper stickers to convert now-useless Nolan signs into custom-made Badnarik signs. A day later, he's candidate for president of the United States…

Those wondering what can or might happen this year might want to read and think about the whole story.

The analogies between 2004 and 2016 can't be exact; 2004 did not see any former Republican state official or even returning L.P. candidate in the mix, and Gary Johnson is both of those; and first-round and second-round winner (without the majority he needed to cinch the actual nomination) Aaron Russo had elements, in this year's terms, of both John McAfee (brash and brassy say-anything alpha dude with independent notoriety) and Johnson (the closest thing in that mix to real political experience, having won 26 percent in a GOP Nevada gubernatorial four-way primary).

Who might this year's Gary Nolan (somewhat prominent radio talk show host) be? Or this year's Michael Badnarik, the quiet, serious, slightly on the edge-of-respectability movement libertarian lecturer, and eventual victor?

Perhaps there are no meaningful analogies to be made. But it does go to show that Libertarian Party delegates can be unpredictable and there are no sure things until they vote.