The Libertarian party now has its candidate for the 2016 race, and polls, political trends and political splits suggest the grand old third party in American politics poses more of a threat to Hillary Clinton than to Donald Trump.
Over the weekend, the national Libertarian party convention selected former Governors Gary Johnson and William Weld as its Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees for the November elections. Libertarians automatically qualify for the ballot in around 30 states and have a proven ability to get on the ballot in every state.
In the latest Fox News poll of the general, Trump led Clinton by 3 points, 45-42. When Libertarian Johnson was added, Trump led Clinton again by 3 points, 42-39, with Johnson picking up 10 percent support. Both Trump and Clinton each lost 3 points of support when the Libertarian was added to the mix.
Johnson pulls his largest support among voters under 35 in the Fox poll. He also performs much better with Liberal voters than conservative voters. This is counter-intuitive for many who haven’t paid attention to the Libertarian party in the Age of Obama. In general, Johnson pulls equally from both Trump and Clinton in most demographics. In a few key demographics, though, he draws more away from Hillary Clinton than Trump. These demographics are central to Hillary Clinton’s hopes for reaching the White House.
Quinnipiac University released a poll on Wednesday showing a general election toss-up, with Clinton holding a slight four point edge over Trump, 45-41. When third party candidates Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein were added, Clinton’s edge dropped to two points, 40-38. Johnson captured 5 percent, while Stein earned 3 percent.
Adding Stein to the general election mix is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Quinnipiac, it ought to be pointed out.
The Greens are a very young party, tracing their national profile only back to 2000, when Ralph Nader ran under their banner. They only have automatic ballot access in around 20 states and don’t have a proven record of securing a place on the ballot nationally. The party itself has gone through messy splits within its ranks and doesn’t have anything close to the infrastructure of the Libertarian party.
As a result, Stein’s presence in the poll doesn’t really seem to have a very dramatic impact. Johnson, however, does draw some meaningful support in certain key demographics. Again, these are groups most critical to Hillary Clinton.
Johnson does best with young voters and, surprisingly, Hispanics. In a one-on-one match-up, Clinton leads Trump among Hispanics by a massive 65-18 margin, not far off the pace of Obama against Romney in 2012. Johnson, however, doubles his vote among Hispanics, earning 10 percent and reducing Clinton’s lead to 57-15.
Both these polls suggest that Johnson does best with young voters, Hispanics and liberal-leaning Independents. This is not your father’s Libertarian party.
In the 2013 Virginia Governor’s race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the money-man for the Clintons, won a very slim victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. In that race, Libertarian Richard Sarvis captured 6.5 percent of the vote, a high for the party in statewide elections. Interestingly, the top second choice among Sarvis voters was McAuliffe, not Cuccinelli.
Sarvis did well in many suburban areas around Richmond and likely drew votes away from Cuccinelli, who had very strong conservative views on social issues. In the western part of Virginia, though, Sarvis drew a large number of voters away from McAuliffe. The Democrat underperformed in many parts of the state, losing votes to Sarvis and making the overall race much closer.
Virginia politics abounded with rumors that Sarvis had been recruited by national Democrats to draw votes away from Cuccinelli. That may have been the plan, but the outcome was far more complicated.
Pundits of a certain age remember the Libertarian party as almost the original Tea Party movement. Drawing its intellectual history from the English and French Enlightenment, Libertarians have long sought to check to growth of the federal government and reduce the state’s involvement in both the private sector and individual lives.
For much of modern political history, the Libertarians have been a kind of alternative Republican party, emphasizing fiscal responsibility, economic freedom and downplaying the relevance of social issues. It has been, depending on where one stood, both Republican-lite, in terms of social issues, and Republicans on conservative steroids, with respect to economic issues.
Political developments of the past decade have flipped that script a bit. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq have made self-identified Libertarians much more anti-war and noninterventionist than in the past. The emergence of issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization have put social issues more at the forefront of Libertarian priorities than they were in the 1980s or 1990s. Libertarians have also been long-time supporters of very open immigration policies.
Libertarians still believe, of course, that most federal programs should be scrapped, that most taxation is theft and the bulk of economic regulation should be left to the markets. These policies, though, are much further down their list of priorities.
Perhaps, that isn’t quite fair. Rather, these policies are obscured by a greater attention on the louder issues of gay marriage, drug legalization and non-intervention in foreign affairs. It was these issues, after all, that powered Ron Paul’s surprisingly strong campaigns for President. Those campaigns, especially in 2008, displayed the same kind of youth-driven activism that is currently fueling the Sanders campaign in the Democrat primary.
Therein lies the real threat to the Hillary Clinton campaign. In her race for the Democrat nomination, she has struggled with young, liberal and Hispanic voters. She has performed well with more establishment Democrats and African-Americans. Sanders’ strengths, though, have been with the activist wing of the party it most needs to win general elections.
A great deal of ink has been shed wondering whether Clinton can win over the Sanders supporters, especially the young voters, in her race against Donald Trump. Even in the Republican primaries, Trump did relatively poorly with young voters. Many of the assumption about the general election are premised on the belief that Sanders’ young hordes will eventually back Clinton. Perhaps without the enthusiasm, but in sufficient numbers that she can win in November.
These idealistic young voters will have a third option though. An unconventional candidate running against the two major parties and backed by a platform that supports the social issue priorities of young voters, i.e. Libertarian Johnson, may have a great deal of appeal for Sanders’ supporters.