Libertarian Party

Three Reasons the Libertarian Party Could Do Unusually Well—and Three Reasons It May Want to Contain Its Excitement

What can America's largest third party expect from this election?


Welcome to Orlando, home of a fantasy state.
National Airlines

This weekend the Libertarian Party will choose a presidential candidate in Orlando. Ordinarily that would not be major news, but the press is paying the L.P. much more attention than usual this year. Faced with the dreary prospect of a race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, many voters have been casting about for a third option. And now three polls have shown the most likely Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, pulling about 10 percent in a three-way race.

Some portion of that 10 percent is surely just a generic none-of-the-above statement from people who couldn't tell you who Gary Johnson is (he used to be governor of New Mexico) or what the Libertarian Party believes (it's a mix of live-and-let-live social policy, laissez-faire economic policy, and antiwar foreign policy). But 10 percent is far more than a Libertarian will usually get, and it has attracted attention. So has Johnson's announcement that former Massachusetts governor William Weld is willing to be his running mate. Weld's views sometimes aren't that libertarian, but he's the sort of name that makes the media take notice. Add the fact that Johnson's rivals for the nomination include another famous figure—the eccentric entrepreneur John McAfee, who comes across as a mash-up of Hunter Thompson and Howard Hughes—and you've got yourself a story.

But will it still be a story in November? Here are three reasons to think the Libertarian Party could fare unusually well this year—and three reasons its members might want to contain their excitement.

1. People really can't stand Trump and Clinton…

Election Day 2016

According to an NBC poll released earlier this week, nearly 60 percent of Americans say they either "hate" or "dislike" Hillary Clinton; just over 60 percent say the same about Donald Trump. In another recent survey, this one from NBC and The Wall Street Journal, the two leading candidates had the lowest favorability ratings for any major-party nominees in the history of the poll. Last week a poll from Data Targeting showed 55 percent of the country wishing an independent would enter the race. Voters are plainly hungry for another choice.

…but that doesn't mean they hate Trump and Clinton equally.

Just because people want a third choice doesn't mean they'll actually vote for one. Partisanship is powerful—so powerful it can lead people to cast their ballots for candidates they can't stand.

Why? One compelling study, presented last year by the Emory political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, suggests that, as the song goes, it's hatred that keeps us together: A great deal of partisan behavior is driven not by party loyalty but by fear of the other team. Many Americans despise Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but they still might vote for one of them if they find the other one even more revolting.

2. The L.P. may be THE third option…

Each time there's this much public dissatisfaction, Libertarian activists hope it will pay dividends for their party. And each time, another campaign steals its thunder. That shouldn't be surprising: When voter anger is high enough that a Libertarian has a chance to do well, another candidate is likely to see the same opening and jump in.

Near or middle or very far east/Far or near or very middle east/Clark, Clark, Clark for peace
Libertarian Party

In 1980, the two major presidential candidates—Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan—were widely disliked. The Libertarian Party had an articulate nominee, a spot on all 51 ballots, and a lot of money to spend. Then John Anderson decided to run as an independent. Anderson wasn't particularly libertarian, but he drew much of his support from the young, skeptical liberals that the L.P. had planned to target. Between that and Reagan's limited-government rhetoric, which hurt the party's ability to make inroads on the other end of the spectrum, the Libertarian ticket got only about 1 percent of the vote. That's much better than its usual tally, but it's nothing near what activists had hoped.

In 1992, the country faced its first national election since the end of the Cold War, a time when a lot of old certainties suddenly seemed shaky. The incumbent was unpopular, a recession was underway, both the Democrats and the Republicans were hit by anti-establishment insurgencies in the primaries, and there was good reason to think a lot of the country wanted a third option. The L.P. was not in as good a position this time as it was in 1980: It was on all 51 ballots again, but it had less money to spend and was saddled with a terrible candidate. But its biggest problem was Ross Perot, whose independent campaign soaked up almost all of the protest vote.

Was the hashtag going to be a part of the party name?

That's a lot less likely to happen in 2016. For all the talk of the #NeverTrump Republicans running a candidate of their own, they've had a hard time finding a standard-bearer—and if they ever do dig one up, he'll face a maze of ballot-access restrictions. Just as Trump managed to benefit from nomination rules that had been enacted precisely to block insurgents like Trump, the Libertarian Party now faces less competition because of ballot access laws enacted to block groups like the Libertarian Party. For the first time in the L.P.'s 44-year history, it may get to be the most prominent presidential alternative in a year when lots of people want an alternative.

…but the big third options tend to fall apart quickly.

While that may boost the Libertarian vote total this year, that growth won't necessarily be sustainable in the long run. Anderson planned to build on his presidential campaign by starting a new National Unity Party, but it failed to launch. Perot's Reform Party saw its vote total decline in 1996, and then it splintered into rival parties that haven't had much national impact. It is the nature of this sort of third-party storm—one that breaks out in the upheavals of a particularly tumultuous election—to dissipate soon afterward. So even if this year's Libertarian candidate gets an unusually high number of votes, you shouldn't assume his successor will be able to build on that in 2020.

That doesn't have to be what happens. But I wouldn't bet against it. In the strange circumstances of 2016, we're seeing folks like Mary Matalin—a longtime Republican operative who never showed any interest in libertarianism before—suddenly join the Libertarian Party. Does anyone really expect her to stick around?

And these were just the top-tier candidates.
Weird Tales

3. It's a weird year…

The Republicans are about to nominate a TV star with no political experience who spent the primaries dropping what would have been 10-megaton gaffes if any ordinary politician had said them. The Democrats' primary voters have given more than 40 percent of their support to a self-proclaimed socialist who until last year didn't even belong to the party. Just a few weeks ago, one major candidate was strongly implying that another candidate's father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. If you want to tell me the Libertarian Party could get 10-plus percent of the vote this year, I won't dismiss you. This is, to use a technical term from political science, a really fucking weird election.

…but normality is resilient.

Let's not just throw up our hands and declare that nothing is real and everything is permissible. Even this year's strangeness has had limits.

Think of all the odd forecasts that so far have failed to come true. We are not en route to a brokered Republican convention. Bill Kristol has not rebooted the Bull Moose Party. Bernie Sanders has not won the Democratic nomination. Michael Bloomberg has not launched a vanity campaign. Many bizarre things will surely happen between today and November 8. A strong showing for the Libertarian Party is not necessarily one of them.

But I can't blame any delegates in Orlando this weekend who feel excited about their chances. This year has been a goddamn flock of black swans. Maybe one of those swans will turn out to be the Libertarian Party.

NEXT: Police Across U.S. Try to Soften Image With Elaborate Dance-Off Videos

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  1. Are you going to play “Fooling yourself” at the convention?

    1. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

      1. nice

  2. Johnson’s announcement that former Masachusetts(sic) governor William Weld is willing to be his running mate.

    You can subtract 00001% off of that 10% polling number. Never voting for Johnson after that move

    1. Well, the President and VP ARE picked separately. They might look at Weld and decide “uh… how about no.”

      Could a Presidential candidate be chosen as a running mate? Johnson/Petersen might be a good ticket.

    2. So who are you going to vote for? Jill Stein? Hillary? Trump? Normally voting for the lesser of two evils is terrible but in this case, Johnson is so far lesser of the other two evils that I will gladly vote for him.

      1. Johnson is so far lesser of the other two evils that I will gladly vote for him.

        This. I’ll either vote LP or not at all this year. Regardless of who they nominate.

  3. Is that a porn mag for furries?

  4. The more people get to know GayJay the less support he’ll have.

    John McAfee 2016

    1. Yeah, I agree. It doesn’t matter who I vote for since they’re not going to win. What matters to me is who I’m going to tell friends, family, aquantinces, strangers to listen to. Hey check this guy out. He may be a little flakey(Johnson)/wooden(Peterson)/psycho(McAfee) but he has a great message. I’m going with McAfee because his message about Libertarianism is the one I want people to hear and think about.

      1. I’m going with McAfee because his message about Libertarianism is the one I want people to hear and think about.

        Why not all three and let the person make up his, her, or its, own mind?

        1. Because their minds are feeble and they need help processing basic political, economic and philosophical ideas.

          1. Helped? Or narrowly indoctrinated?

            1. All 3? I’m not trying to bore them death

              1. 3 objective, basic bullet points (I loath the term “talking points”) for each is not difficult, JB. I’ve seen you post; you are more than capable of persuasive pith.

                Besides, your prospect may be more inclined to Johnson or Peterson; is it more important to evangelize McAfee only, or to change your prospect’s heart and mind on his, her, or its terms to Libertarianism as a whole?

              2. I’m really talking about who I want as the nominee and why. I feel more comfortable with McAfee’s libertarianism.

                1. So you are deciding for the prospect then; it’s not even about McAfee, really, it’s about you, not them. :-((((

                  Which is fine; just be honest about it.

                  1. No I’m saying which nominee I prefer and why. Yes, I suppose the nominee I prefer is about me but I don’t understand your point.

      2. Plus McAfee is nuttier than a fruitcake, which will fit in well with the 2016 Big Top Circus election we are enjoying.

      3. I wonder if McAfee reaches normal folk.

        In preaching to the choir, he is great. But we have a context for all of his terse answers. When he says “you haven’t learned anything” at the last debate, we all know what he is talking about. But as a clip on the news, he just comes off as a kook.

        When he says things like “it is none of our business”. Or simply “no”…. we all know what he means. But it is such a radically different way of speaking about politics, I wonder if the average TV viewer can even hear it. Or do they just hear “this guy doesn’t know anything”. Or maybe “he won’t even answer that simple question”. Or – and this is the death knell for 3rd party candidates – “what a kook”.

        Every year the mainstream media tries to ignore 3rd party candidates. And if they become too prominent to ignore, then they are immediately branded as nutters. The same is true of insurgent candidates in the main parties. That was the very first thing they tried when Rand Paul began to gain attention. They never let off of the “he’s nuts” gas pedal with Ron Paul.

        McAfee would be very easy to portray as the nutty guy. Pulling clips of him looking and sounding nutty isn’t all that hard. You don’t even need to have Katie Couric’s editing skills to pull it off.

        But at least his libertarian voice is full-throated. We’ve always needed a standard-bearer who was passionate, articulate and unapologetic. Ron fit the bill, but was a little too offbeat.

        1. LP has always needed candidates who voters can accept in office. It’s hard enough in a two-party system to get voters to vote for a candidate that they know won’t win. Much harder to get them to vote for a candidate they HOPE won’t win.

          And the source of the problem is not the candidates. The source of the problem is that LP itself seems designed to reject even most small-l libertarians – who are precisely the people who can sell the ideas as ‘normal’ to most voters since they do ‘play well with others’.

          1. To get the spoiler votes that change the laws we have to pretend we actually want to get elected. But the important thing is the laws we force the looters to repeal or overturn. Whenever the LP gets a law repealed, I win, and that’s what matters.

        2. It’s hard enough to get voters to vote for a candidate they know won’t win. Much harder to get voters to vote for a candidate they hope doesn’t win.

          And honestly the problem isn’t the candidates. The problem is the LP itself seems designed to reject most small-l libertarians (if you define small-l libertarian as someone in that quadrant on the Nolan test) – much less designed to actually expand the number of small-l libertarians. So whatever the candidate is supposed to do, they will have to do on their own.

          1. I get voters to vote for their own pocketbooks and well-being. Once people understand that 2% spoiler votes is all it takes, to change the constitution, repeal laws and cut taxes, voting Libertarian makes sense. Did the communists get elected? NO, but the communist manifesto income tax is the 16th Amendment and IRS code. Did the Prohibition candidate make it to the Executive Mansion? NO, but for 13 years These States were a dry dictatorship and enjoyable drugs are still illegal. Once you understand the system, you can explain it. Compromise is not necessary, and it’s the opposition’s job anyway.

      4. McAfee’s an interesting character – and he put together a great “Go Libertarian” video – but I don’t know if he’ll fare decently in the general. The Big Two might start slamming him with the murder accusations or go full Cruz on him about his Belize citizenship.

        1. The Big Two might start slamming him with the murder accusations

          Well Trump could. I’m not sure Hillary would want to go down the road of accusing another candidate of killing people.

  5. Add the fact that Johnson’s rivals for the nomination include another famous figure?the eccentric entrepreneur John McAfee, who comes across as a mash-up of Hunter Thompson and Howard Hughes?and you’ve got yourself a story.

    Well, one might think so. And yet when I turn on the TV, not a whisper about the Libertarian nominating convention or the candidates. So if you are not a political talk show junkie or already in the choir, you don’t have a clue that the libertarians are up to anything this week.

    Unless Ron Paul storms the stage and leads a sit-in rebellion – complete with tear gas and riot gear – I doubt the average voter is going to hear anything at all about the Libertarian convention. Nobody is going to watch the speeches. Nobody is going to read the platform. Nobody is going to learn anything.

    But, you know, Libertarian Moment!

    1. The LP is a worthwhile institution. When the Libertarian Moment arrives (that is, when a critical mass of people finally understands that the state isn’t the solution to our problems but is the problem) the LP will be ready for its expression as a political movement.

      However, its success would be without historical precedent. Successful new political parties in history are characterized by one or the other of two things: 1) moneyed interests willing to invest in the prospects that the new party will feather their nests (e.g., at their founding, the Republicans made valuable promises to the railroads and Yankee manufacturers, the Labour Party offered valuable prospects to the trades unions and intellectual elites), or 2) ruthless violence (communists, national socialists). The LP is constitutionally incapable of either.

      1. If the libertarian moment arrives, the Amish are better prepared to take advantage of it than the LP is. I don’t think the historical precedent is as bleak as you picture it – but the burden of proof for anything new is always going to be a demonstration that it does actually work at some level. And LP has a much tougher job of making it work than the Amish do.

        Absent that demonstration – yes of course any new source of potential power will be taken over by those who yearn for and know how to use power. As will any absence/vacuum of existing power.

    2. I had a teevee once, turned it off in 1974, and have done my own voting ever since.

  6. “(it’s a mix of live-and-let-live social policy, laissez-faire economic policy, and antiwar foreign policy)”

    So, you’re not calling the LP “socially liberal” any more?

    That’s good, the term only confuses people when used about libertarians.

    1. live-and-let-live social policy

      the term only confuses people when used about libertarians.

      And, apparently, Gary Johnson as well.

      1. At this point in time, the word liberal in itself is confusing. Most people don’t know the difference between classical and modern liberalism. I wish classical liberals could reclaim the word, as to have a chance to explain to modern liberals what real liberalism is, but such lazy people and such weak education, I don’t see much opportunity for that to happen.

        1. Mein Kampf is full of vituperative comments about liberals. Post-1932 GOP cant is pretty much the same. Funny that… and puzzling to aussies, kiwis, limeys and canooks, all of whom fancy they know English.

  7. Regarding Johnson and Weld – while many of us may have issues with some of their past actions and statements, particularly those of Weld, it occurs to me that Johnson/Weld would be the best ticket to have Trump get’s the GOP nomination. If a concerted #nevertrump effort develops withing the GOP, this ticket would be the least-objectionable one wrt attracting disaffected GOP voters. I still don’t think they could win even with such an effort, but it mean lots of press and attention and maybe a place at the debates. Cross-posting this to both AM Links and LP Convention threads.

  8. Agreed. For all this hubbub, I’d be surprised if Mr. Johnson got more than 2% of the popular vote.

  9. I thought Andre Marrou was a good candidate, even though I was a friend of Jim Lewis.

    1. Andre was really good with ladies, spoke several languages, and was a good speaker generally.

    2. Nancy Lord I never thought was so great.

  10. I suspect most people will end up holding their noses and voting for either Captain Hairweave or The Cackling Cankle Queen. Most Important Election Evar/ Can’t Let That Evil Shithead from the Other Party Win and all that horseshit. The LP will be lucky to crack 1% regardless of who the nominee is.

    1. That 1% sure changes a lot of laws. Voting for looter parties, on the other hand…

  11. “Ordinarily that would not be major news, but the press is paying the L.P. much more attention than usual this year. ”

    And the reason is? It’s not because people in mass hate either trump of clinton, it’s to try to drain votes from trump to another party. The press doesn’t give a crap about LP principles. Libertarians are antithetical to what most in the press believe.

  12. Come on guys, we libertarians don’t actually want to WIN elections, we just want to engage in mutual mental masturbation at the expense of the two major parties and the unwashed masses!

  13. In 1992…The L.P. was not in as good a position this time as it was in 1980: It was on all 51 ballots again, but it had less money to spend and was saddled with a terrible candidate.

    That’s an overly harsh assessment of Andre Marrou, and especially his running mate Nancy Lord.

    1. That’s an overly harsh assessment of Andre Marrou, and especially his running mate Nancy Lord.

      I was referring to Marrou. Lord was a capable candidate and would have been a better choice for the top of the ticket.

  14. “nothing is real and everything is permissible.” Do we have an Assassin’s Creed fan here? “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”

    1. So I wasn’t the only one to notice that…

    2. Pretty sure it’s for all us Discordians. Pretty sure Jesse Walker is at least sympathetic.

  15. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Get used to the phrase “President Johnson”.
    Trump-Clinton is reviled. Johnson is qualified and moderate.

    The early poll numbers are encouraging. Getting from 10 or 11 percent to the 15 percent threshold for the debates is not a monumental obstacle, as it would be for a typical LP candidate in a typical year. Third party candidates usually fare worse on election day than in pre-election polls, because people worry about wasting their votes. But once the third party candidate crosses the viability threshold, he or she can be seen as a serious contender, like Ross Perot in 1992.

  16. “Many Americans despise Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but they still might vote for one of them if they find the other one even more revolting.”
    For those of us who don’t live in swing states, that needn’t be an issue. If you know your vote isn’t going to decide this election, why get your hands dirty voting for the lesser evil?

    1. Even for people living in swing states, wasting a potentially deciding vote isn’t an issue. The number of states decided by one vote in a presidential election in all of US history is zero. And the one time it came close, they recounted the hanging chads before giving up and letting the Supreme Court decide.

  17. Am I the only one who noticed that the five large tower-tops on that Orlando poster are arranged like the hand of someone giving the finger?

  18. As more people learn about the LP, initially the detractors will increase faster than the converts. No excuse not to forge ahead. I’m not currently involved in the LP, but watching closely to see how they comport themselves this time around.

  19. Reason needs to be careful with long titles for these columns. Had to reread, as I could have sworn this one said “Contain Its Excrement”.

    1. Um… worse things could happen.

  20. Jesse, the socialists and prohibitionists polled some 2% of the vote from 1868 to 1912, and twice amended the Constitution to have guns pointed at everyone. Almost none of them were elected so much as dog-zoner, but did they lose? Since 1971 we’ve gotten rid of the draft, the War in Vietnam, abortion laws, porn laws, states are stampeding to repeal prohibition like it was 1933–so… we’re LOSING with our libertarian spoiler votes?

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