Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.) this morning completed his three-stage transition from not ruling out a Libertarian Party presidential bid, to hinting coquettishly at the necessity of a third approach to national politics, to now calling direct attention to his White House deliberations.
"In mid-February, Justin Amash paused active campaigning for his congressional seat to carefully consider a presidential run," his office emailed to reporters this morning. "He has been discussing the potential campaign with his family, his friends, his team, and others, and a decision can be expected soon."
The libertarian congressman now has 35 days to decide whether he is ready to navigate the idiosyncrasies of America's bronze-medal party and potentially subject himself to a half-year's worth of bottomlessly funded abuse from Democrats and Republicans busy whipping themselves up in a hate bath of negative polarization.
There are many unanswered questions that Amash, Libertarians, and Americans writ large have occasion to ponder in connection with a putative campaign. Here are four:
1) What impact would an Amash candidacy have on Trump vs. Biden?
Libertarians, Greens, independents, and nonvoters hate this question—who says my vote belongs to anybody, man??—yet sadly or fortunately, we neither run the world nor shape its political discourse. This will be the main consideration about an Amash run against a president who is loved by Republicans and loathed by much of everyone else. What scant preliminary evidence we have on the question is…mixed.
A May 28–30, 2019 Glengariff Group poll of 600 likely Michigan voters found Amash receiving 10 percent in his home state, compared to 45 percent for Joe Biden and 39 percent for Donald Trump, with 6 percent undecided. Intriguingly, Biden's six-point advantage doubled to 12 with the Amash option taken out.
Could it be that pro-Trump fervor eclipses its anti-Trump opposite? That Biden's vaunted enthusiasm gap makes third-partiers—especially one who was among the most persuasive voices in Congress in favor of impeachment—more tempting for nose-holding voters on the left? There just hasn't been enough polling on which to base an educated guess.
A GQR Research survey of 1,700 registered voters nationwide conducted in July of 2019 found Amash getting 7 percent, behind Biden's 49 and Trump's 41 (2 percent elected other). The question was not asked without the prospective Libertarian on the ballot. The same company presented 775 likely voters with the same choices Sept. 7-11, 2019, and got 48 percent for Biden, 41 percent for Trump, and 4 percent Amash, with 5 percent other/undecided.
So the last presidential poll that even had Amash's name in it was taken more than four months before the Iowa caucus and a lifetime before the coronavirus miasma we find ourselves swimming in now.
2) Does he really have a puncher's chance?
This is where opinions will vary the widest. The positive case looks something like this:
Amash, who turns 40 on Saturday, would be competing against the two oldest major-party presidential nominees in United States history. He is quick-witted and energetic; they are…Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Of the two old white guys, one made a lifetime of outgroup-unfriendly gaffes, the other has choked off the inflow of refugees and demonized people from various "shithole" countries. Amash, by contrast, is the overachieving son of two Middle Eastern immigrant success stories, one of whom was a Palestinian refugee.
It's not just personality that makes this path, it's context. We are only beginning to feel the ripple effects from the coronavirus, which are certain to get much worse. The 2008 financial crisis and policy response thereof produced not just one but two backlash political movements (the Tea Party on the right, Occupy Wall Street on the left); the rescue package passed last month is already more expensive on a per-capita basis than the 2008–2009 bailout/stimulus combined.
The persistently unpopular Trump, after effecting a hostile takeover of the GOP in 2016, continues to forge a Republicanism antithetical to traditional conservative values. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) may have failed twice now to take over the Democratic Party, but the unlovable centrists who bested him have been effectively saddled with most of his bad economics and almost none of his movement's enthusiasm.
Weak, increasingly statist parties led by off-putting ancients—why, it's like they're saying "Run, Justin, run!" Surely, he will tip the scales in the swing state of Michigan!
OK, that's the positive case for Amash to greatly improve on Gary Johnson's 3.27 percent from 2016. What's the counterargument?
Basically this: The conditions for nontraditional candidates in times of high negative polarization are particularly brutal, as we saw in the 2018 midterms. This is particularly true in cycles immediately following a razor-thin presidential race. Even people who love Amash are going to be begging him not to run if there is any chance of him impeding the all-or-nothing quest to drive Trump out of the White House.
3) Would he even win the Libertarian nomination?
An interesting parallel question is how Amash—or anyone else—will win, given the Libertarian Party's coronavirus conundrum, which is: The party makes 100 percent of its nominating decision by voting in person at the quadrennial convention, yet it's unclear at the moment whether that physical gathering will be allowed to take place next month in Austin.
"Currently, the plan for the 2020 Libertarian National Convention that is still in place is to convene in Austin, Texas at the JW Marriott on May 22nd," the convention web page updated yesterday. "This can and likely may change. We have been continually monitoring the situation through posted government orders, and have been communicating with both the venue and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. It has been communicated to us that the JW Marriott in Austin plans to reopen May 8th, and that as current orders stand, they will be fully operational for our convention."
Libertarian Party Executive Director Daniel Fishman told The Dispatch Tuesday, "Many of our delegates have already had flights canceled….One way or another, I'm pretty sure that we're going to not be allowed to have our convention in Austin." The party will reassess on May 2.
4) Does this mean Amash has given up on winning re-election as an independent?
Don't be so sure. Amash out-fundraised his Democratic and Republican opponents in the fourth quarter of 2019. On one hand, he faces the difficult obstacle of competing in one of the few states that has the straight-ticket ballot option, by which voters can check one box to vote for every candidate from a given party ("Straight-ticket voting makes it prohibitive to run outside of the major parties," Amash told me in 2018). On the other hand, he enjoys the power of incumbency and has both the track record and cockiness of someone who has won one election after another in his district.
At the risk of taking a politician at least somewhat at his word, I reckon that Amash's calculation here in these final decision-making days is the same as he told Nick Gillespie way back in the summer of 2019, multiplied by the exponential power of the coronavirus: "If I can be most effective on the national stage spreading the message of liberty and the message of respect and love, then that's what I do."
You can watch that interview here: