Intrigue and Politicking Between the Presidential Ballots at the Libertarian Party Convention

McAfee sees victory; Petersen sees red; Johnson wants everyone to lighten up.


After Gary Johnson failed to get his first-ballot majority by five votes at the Libertarian Party National Convention today, his campaign whips sprang into action. While I thought they might want to aim at the nine voters for Kevin McCormick, who would be cut from the ballot on second round, I learned later that no one seemed to put too much effort into ferreting out these mystery people. I asked around the California delegation, three of whose members voted for the Arizona family man who works in the tech field.

No one reported any other candidate's whips asking around about hidden McCormick voters. I figured since turning them all would win it for Johnson, it would be a goal for the Johnson team. But as a whip for Johnson told me later, they had bigger fish to fry: Marc Feldman's 58 votes.

Matt Welch//Doherty and McAfee

Feldman was one of the first people I ran into moving across the crowded convention hall after the inconclusive first ballot. He stopped mid-dash to tell a McAfee supporter that "I was officially asked to drop out and support Gary Johnson. I said 'no fucking way!'" Feldman did not want to tell me who he might recommend his delegates support if and when he was knocked out.

Feldman had been relatively anonymous in the whole presidential process, until being given enough token ballots to get into the last presidential debate at the convention itself. Gary Johnson himself, I was told by one of his crew, cast the ballot that got Feldman in.

This may have been a strategic attempt to prevent any of the other not-Johnsons from hitting critical mass by siphoning votes to the hilarious and pugnacious Feldman. Indeed, it might have helped with that. Feldman, an anesthesiologist by profession, charmed the hell of the crowd at the debate with a consistent string of funny quips for every occasion that also delivered hardcore libertarian punch, ending with a remarkably impassioned and strangely quite good rap about the other candidates and libertarian activists in general.

Enough people loved him that they tipped their hat respectfully with a first ballot vote, even though almost all of them certainly didn't expect him to win. Feldman himself told me later his plan for victory was to be everyone's second choice, in case no one else was ever a majority's first choice, and that he is ultimately happy enough that Johnson was the victor.

Since Feldman support was perceived by the Johnson team as momentary and more of a tribute than a sincere attempt to make him the nominee, they were who the Johnson whips targeted mostly, and with good effect.

I ran into John McAfee moving about the perimeter of the convention, cheerful and confident and energetic as he is at his best. He thrust his arms over my shoulder and looked me straight in the eyes, smiling and nodding as if to remind me of the times I expressed doubts about his eventual victory. (He was third on the first ballot, with 14 percent, 131 delegates.)

"Now I win," he says. "All the things happening in the backrooms all this time is going to play out." He reeled off a dizzying and quick set of delegate block flips and support shifts that would upend everything and leave him the last man standing. "I will win this thing." (McAfee was correct that Feldman's folks would end up going Gary, but wrong that it wouldn't happen until Feldman was officially taken out of contention for coming in last.)

McAfee's version of whipping his delegates? "I tell people to vote from their hearts," he says as he headed to the hotel bar with journalist Matt Labash while the other campaigns were scrambling around the delegate benches seeking to improve their fortunes in round two. "Gov. Johnson's supporters are soft," he says. But he thinks pulling a single Austin Petersen or Darryl Perry delegate? "Try it. It can't be done."

McAfee thinks even McCormick people would "shoot themselves" before voting for Johnson. Another campaign operative told me that he heard lots of Johnson votes were from people doing a favor for their state party leaders and now that he didn't win first ballot they'd feel free to vote their conscience. No, the governor was not invincible and indeed it was conventional wisdom among many of his opponents' campaigns that if he couldn't pull it off in round one, he never would. It didn't turn out that way.

Are you and Petersen going to ally in some way to bring down Johnson, I ask McAfee?

"Why do you think we hug onstage? Why do I call him son and he calls me father?" But he will not specify who would hand over support to who in such a possible alliance.

Austin Petersen, who came in second on the first ballot with 21 percent, 197 delegates, was visibly tense and angry when I found him at his Missouri delegation table before he hustled off to whip delegates, saying he would try to forge some sort of anti-Johnson coalition.

More importantly, he thought not-Johnsons needed to unite to make sure that William Weld, who Petersen later called a "horrifying statist," did not get the vice presidential nod. He wanted a unity ticket with Johnson, if he won, to include Alicia Dearn, a St. Louis lawyer, as vice president. (Dearn had done ballot access suit work for Gary Johnson's 2012 campaign, and eventually wrote off the hanging debt owed her for her services.) 

I find Johnson being interviewed by a TV crew. In his best bemused shrugging style, he says that, well, maybe his particular politics never fit just right in any particular current party scene, maybe not even this one, though he also says he does believe and always thought of himself and Weld as libertarians. "Hey, it's a contest, lighten up everyone!" he says in a general attempt to lighten the tense, shouty mood on the convention floor between ballots.

Petersen grabbed Johnson from a press scrum outside shortly thereafter. He hadn't heard and didn't seem prepared to heed Johnson's call for lightening up.

Petersen, voice and posture tense, asked Johnson if he really wanted to unify the party? If he did, how could he try to push William Weld on them? Johnson seemed from my perspective to just march away from Petersen, though other reporters heard him tell Petersen that this just wasn't the place for this discussion. (It was in front of dozens of cameras.)

Asked if he could consider going for vice president himself, Petersen, with a background in musical theater, adopted his best noble Roman pose and demeanor and said no, he just could not do that. He lamented that the Johnson campaign had all along ignored calls to put his army of freedom ninjas at Johnson's disposal, and felt "always pushed away" by Johnson. "I'm in this for principle," he says, and thus cannot be swayed by any argument Weld will bring in money or media attention. "Johnson is a good guy," Petersen says, but he cannot tolerate Weld for vice president.

Darryl Perry, the hardcore anarchist who came in fourth with 6.8 percent (63 delegates), told me that if and when he was squeezed out, he would (as McAfee had just told me) recommend his delegates go for the antivirus software developer, and if it got down to Johnson vs. Petersen he would hope true Perry supporters would just vote "none of the above."

The Johnson whip machine, however, did its job too well. They were able to mass texts to their known delegates and had crowds working the floor for face-to-face conversion of people not already their delegates, and brought it home, on the second ballot, with over 55 percent.

"I feel relieved, you have no idea," McAfee said. "I was hoping Austin would win, all I ever wanted was a non-Johnson, but we eat what we have to eat and do what we have to do." McAfee and his vice presidential candidate Judd Weiss both say they intend to continue their "Vote Different" campaign to rebrand and apply the best modern communications tech to the libertarian movement, focusing in the party on potentially winnable local races.