The Libertarian Party is potentially a viable “third option” for millions of voters turned off by the presumptive Democrat and Republican nominees, partly because it has automatic ballot access in over 30 states and a proven record of getting on the ballot in other states.
But, alas, the Party is having something of an existential crisis.
At its convention this weekend, former Gov. Gary Johnson, Libertarian candidate for President in 2012, won the party’s nomination again, despite more than a dozen challengers.
Johnson, a successful businessman, was a popular two-term Republican governor of New Mexico. He emphasized this executive experience against more colorful challengers like software pioneer John MacAfee. Johnson has been a forceful advocate against the national drug war and has, in recent years, been on the business side of the country’s burgeoning marijuana industry. He is the leading, or acceptable, choice for president for most of the party’s regular activists.
One decision Johnson has made, however, threatens to rip the Party apart–his choice of a running mate. Johnson has thrown his support, and campaign apparatus, behind former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.
Unlike the Republican and Democrat parties, the Libertarian Party selects its Vice-Presidential candidate separately. While Johnson has endorsed Weld and is openly campaigning as a combined ticket, the choice of Johnson’s running mate is ultimately up to the delegates at the convention. There are nine candidates vying for the running mate slot.
A former two-term Republican governor of the Bay State, Weld’s political pedigree is more of a typical Northeastern Republican, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, than Libertarian. He endorsed Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008 but campaigned for Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2016, Weld endorsed John Kasich in the Republican primary.
Weld certainly didn’t help his cause on Friday during a debate for Vice-Presidential candidates, referring to people’s perceptions of libertarians as the “unattractive people” in their neighborhoods.
“He showed that he was Republican-lite,” complained Jim Fulner, a Libertarian delegate from Michigan. “He didn’t mention a single Libertarian idea.”
Johnson’s tapping of Weld as his running mate seems designed to project a certain image for the Party in the November election. Having a ticket heading by two successful politicians, each with solid records as governors in generally blue states, is almost crafted to appeal to discontented Republicans and Democrats upset with their parties’ nominees.
It is a ticket that could potentially appeal to major donors who are unwilling to commit to supporting Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Last week, there were reports that David Koch had pledged tens of millions of dollars to support Johnson in November. Representatives of both Johnson and Koch denied the report, but it certainly isn’t implausible. Koch was the Vice-Presidential candidate on the Libertarian ticket in 1980 and has funded dozens of libertarian party and policy efforts throughout the years.
For Libertarian party activists, though, a politically crafted ticket with two former Republican governors may be a heavy lift for the notoriously idiosyncratic group.
“The Libertarian Party is fully capable of rejecting a two-term governor with money for a party activist from Peoria,” David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, said. “They’re fully capable of doing so to show that they’re not under the thumb of the man they just nominated.”
Under the broadest analysis, the Libertarian Party ought to be poised to play a significant role in the 2016 election. Both nominees of the two major political parties, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are unpopular with large segments of voters. According to polling data from ABC News/Washington Post, Clinton and Trump are the two most unpopular major party candidates in modern history, with around 60 percent of voters having a negative view of each.
Indeed, three recent national polls have shown Johnson pulling a strong 10 percent of the vote against Clinton and Trump. The general election fight between Clinton and Trump is likely to be very nasty and personal, potentially pushing even more voters to give Johnson a serious look. In 1992, Ross Perot pulled 19 percent of the national vote, the high-water mark for third-party challengers. In 1968, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, captured 14 percent of the vote.
In those two elections, one of the major parties was suffering a major internal fissure. In 92, Republican President George H.W. Bush was running for reelection after breaking a tax pledge that angered the party’s conservative base. In 1968, the Democrat party was reeling from violent clashes between activists and police at its party convention and claims that insiders are rigged the nomination of Hubert Humphrey.
In 2016, however, BOTH parties are plagued by significant turmoil within their party ranks. Trump has persisted in criticizing many Republican office-holders even after clinching the GOP nomination, while Clinton faces open revolt at the Democrat party convention from supporters of Bernie Sanders.
Perot and Wallace were each able to secure double-digit support in the popular vote because one of the major parties failed to unify ahead of the November election. If this year both major parties have significant groups of dissidents, Johnson and the Libertarians could potentially be a major force in November.
The Perot and Wallace candidacies, however, were driven by outsized individual personalities, rather than any kind of organized third party effort. Johnson, for all his qualities, doesn’t have the kind of large personality that commands attention in our schizophrenic media environment. His success would depend, at least in part, on a robust campaign infrastructure.
As the fight for the Libertarian nomination for Vice-President illustrates, the major third party of American politics may have its own internecine civil war before the general. A Libertarian crack-up could stymie the party at the very moment that voter anxiety with Democrats and Republicans reaches all-time highs.
A libertarian “moment” in American politics has long been predicted, but has always failed to materialize. In 2012, the Libertarian ticket for President, headed by Gary Johnson, received its largest share of the popular vote in its history. It won 1 percent nationally.
One percent isn’t nothing, of course. It is, however, a very long way from a “moment” that could impact the November election in a meaningful way. Millions of voters may be ready for an alternative to a Democrat or Republican candidate, but the alternatives may not be ready for the voters.