The Libertarian Party's Paid Membership Numbers Take a Dive
But registered voters, total donations to the Party remain strong even in the face of historically large loss of members for post-presidential election year.
The Libertarian Party (L.P.) had many successes during and after Gary Johnson's 2016 run for president. Most prominent was Johnson's record-busting 4.46 million votes. Revenue to the national party last year hit an over-a-decade high of around $2.5 million. And registered voters for the L.P. hit an all-time high of over half a million.
Dues-paying active members of the national party rose 66 percent over the course of 2016. That figure has, however, dived enormously so far in 2017.
At the end of January 2017 the party hit its highest membership number of this decade, 18,908. That number dropped 24 percent to 14,321 as of the end of August (That number is still substantially larger than any other year-end figure for this decade.)
Seeing dues-paying member totals fall a year after huge waves of new members were attracted by the Johnson campaign was predictable, says national L.P. executive director Wes Benedict in a phone interview this week.
Benedict specifically predicted a 4,000-5,000 member drop by this time in an April report to the Libertarian National Committee. The actual year-to-date numbers proved him right.
Only 300 new paying members joined the party in August while over 2,000 failed to renew their membership. However, the trend line of monthly renewals has been on a slight upswing over the past year. So many new people joined last year that the numbers renewing and the numbers failing to renew have both increased lately.
The years after presidential elections have often (but not always) seen a dive in those paying the (now) $25 yearly for official dues-paying membership. For example, from end of 1992 to end of 1993, dues-paying member numbers dropped 16 percent, and 2000 to 2001 saw the same percentage drop. More recently, end of 2008 to end of 2009 saw a 10 percent drop, and 2012 to 2013, a two percent drop.
But post-presidential election year declines in paid membership have not been a universal rule; from end of 1988 to end of 1989 that figure grew 25 percent, and from end of 1996 to end of 1997 it grew by six percent.
And most of the past yearly drops are smaller in percentage terms than this year's so far (though the last quarter could see an upswing again). Benedict points out that the membership rise last year was substantially higher than usual, giving the L.P. a larger number of converts who they might fail to get renewed.
Total 2017 revenue will come in at about $1.7 million (with what's already come in by August beating the past decade's average for odd-numbered electoral off-years by around 22 percent); this means money strictly from the $25 yearly dues-paying member fees is likely going to be less than a third of total income for 2017. "August revenue is strong for this year compared to other post-election years," he says.
The inability to retain people attracted by the Johnson campaign bothers many party members. Mark Rutherford of Indiana, a candidate for national chair of the party in 2016, worries the national party "doesn't deliver perceived value" to enough activists.
It's possible that the national party messaging is turning people off, he says. Some pronouncements from the party's national office may come across as "our preaching that we are morally superior to you voters and, guess what? That doesn't win votes," and makes it seem as if the L.P. would "prefer to have a party of just 500 morally superior persons," he says.
Rutherford is, however, encouraged by moves like the recent hiring of a full-time press secretary for the first time in years. He thinks the national party needs to build up a more detailed and personal relationship with the national press, something he feels he's been successful with in Indiana during his many years in the past as the state L.P.'s chair.
State Party over National Party
While not thrilled by the drop in dues-paying national members, state officers stress the attention should focus on state and local candidates who need financial and volunteer support. Activist money "should be spent locally," Rutherford says. "It's hard to send someone to Congress unless they have huge name recognition and you can't get that out of the gate."
Candidates should "start on county commission, city council, then move up and do something else." But the party isn't "attracting people with ability to step up and do it, people with money and contacts. To be blunt, [such people] hang around successful people, and we are not [yet successful]," he says.
Candidates "can't just say taxation is theft," to succeed locally, Rutherford says. That sort of rhetoric is fine among fellow libertarian drinking buddies, but "if you go to the voter with that, he'll say, 'what the hell are you talking about?' Just say taxes are too high and let's get rid of these specific taxes, cut this specific spending." He's seen experience in Indiana where L.P. candidates can get on, say, a school board and convince colleagues that certain spending was counterproductive.
Benedict believes the party would be better equipped to help candidates if candidates encouraged more voters to become dues-paying party members. The party tries its best to retain members; "you would start getting monthly emails from us, after the first month start getting snail mail," and those who let their membership lapse "would start receiving phone calls" from party officials or volunteers, he says.
Caryn Ann Harlos of Colorado, Region One (which includes many other Western states) Libertarian National Committee representative, is one of the activists making those calls. Harlos says dues-paying members represent "a very tangible investment in our party" and their number should be as high as the party can make it. She is buoyed by the fact that overall party income is healthy and up.
This generation of voters is not as attracted to a paid membership model, Harlos says. And perhaps more emphasis should be placed on fundraising for specific projects.
Harlos thinks it's possible the wave of people alarmed by Trump, who got excited by Johnson, might not have a lot of interest in electoral politics right now. But they might well be on board again by 2020.
"There are three reasons I typically hear" when talking to lapsed members, she says in a phone interview this week. "One is the bad economy: 'I'm so sorry, I lost my job and $25 is a lot to me.' That is by far the number one reason. Two, is what happens every election, some people [didn't] like the candidate. And number three is, 'I'm done with [party] politics, I'm going to be independent.'"
One thing Harlos never hears is concern over internal party kerfuffles, whether the party's Twitter was saying the right thing, or whether national chair Nicholas Sarwark or vice-chair Arvin Vohra said something not properly libertarian. Even knowing the names Sarwark or Vohra is vanishingly rare among the rank-and-file, she says.
Potential members might not understand the value of the national party apparatus but Harlos hopes soon they'll see it better serve state affiliates with things like shared database programs and help with professional websites.
Andy Craig of Wisconsin, who helped launch the Libertarian Pragmatist Caucus this year, says he's frustrated by the overall scale of the numbers and the failure to convince more of those half-million registered voters to become dedicated activists or volunteers.
Craig's caucus strives for increased party and candidate professionalism. It is less worried about "the usual strict ideological" conflicts, "anarchists versus minarchists or radicals versus moderates," he says, and more about the party's ability to offer policy solutions that make sense to voters outside those intraparty debates, and to "do the hard work of actually running campaigns," so the party isn't just "putting a name on a ballot and hoping for the best."
Montana is one of only a few states where the number of dues-paying members hasn't fallen this year. Michael Fucci, the state party chair, attributes this to the attention gotten by candidate Mark Wicks, who took part in televised debates and drew a huge-for-the-L.P. six percent of the vote in this year's special Senate House election.
Unlike many state party officials, Fucci is happy with the help he got from national getting Wicks in the debates and advising on development and campaign finance issues. Harlos, who represents Montana on the LNC, has been "phenomenal, she's always there for us," Fucci says.
Minnesota, a state whose national dues-paying membership fell by over 30 percent this year, has eight elected officials in office around the state. Chris Holbrook, the state party chair, isn't that concerned with the national dues-paying member question. His state has added roughly 120 members to its own state party membership rolls in just the last two months, he says in a phone interview this week, after shedding dozens earlier in the year. "I believe (they) came on as 'never Trump' Republicans and a lot of those people have fled us" after realizing that the Libertarian Party has a strong and distinct set of beliefs, one more open to diversity and hostile to traditional social conservatism.
Holbrook thinks the national presidential ticket last year is a matter of "indifference" moving forward. "I think the diversion of resources [to the national Party or national campaigns] hurts local, municipal and state candidates." Johnson's campaign drew in new people last year, but when running recruitment tables at events like the state fair "maybe one in 10 people" mentions or even seems to know Johnson, Holbrook says.
As a small, underfunded organization, the Libertarian Party "can do a good, but not a great job" of recruiting to replace non-renewals, Benedict says. The party's use of the Johnson campaign's donor list itself to get new members wasn't as effective as they'd hoped; "we mailed over 100,000 letters" to former Johnson donors and got less than one percent positive response.
A third party walks a paradoxical razor edge with membership numbers and campaigns, Benedict says. "There's always an issue with expectation management. If you tell people that you aren't going to win, then they might not want to get involved at all" in financing or volunteering with the Party. "But if you say you are going to win this year, many involved may well end up disappointed after Election Day."