Anyone who participated in the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential primary had to answer the three following internal questions: “which candidate best reflects my values, which candidate could actually succeed electorally, and which of those two answers is more important when I cast my vote?”
The answer to the first question varies. Given the fact that the Libertarian Party is made up of everyone from anarcho-capitalists to disaffected moderate Democrats to hundreds of ideological groups in between, it should be no surprise that the final candidates for the presidential nomination included a pro-life media entrepreneur, a software pioneer advocating the end of the TSA, and a former Republican governor opposed to “religious freedom” laws, among others.
However, even many of the staunchest ideological libertarians would concede that the candidate with the best chance of doing well electorally was Gary Johnson. He was, as Johnson supporters argued, the only candidate with elected experience to rival Hillary Clinton’s- this was true. He has successful business experience, like Donald Trump. He had also, as the Libertarian nominee in 2012, run a presidential campaign, and was going to use this experience to run even better this year against the two major party candidates with record-high unfavorable numbers.
Or so some Libertarians believed, anyways.
The Gary Gamble
Libertarians had answered the first two questions posed at the beginning of this piece. Gary Johnson was the intellectual match for very few, but he was widely perceived to be the most electorally viable. And when the delegates were given the choice- pick someone they agree with or pick someone they thought could win- they went all in and bet big on electability. They made the Gary Gamble.
And now it looks like the Libertarian Party will end the 2016 election cycle will end the way it has ended nearly every other presidential cycle: embarrassed, having failed to get any significant share of the vote, and on its way back to the drawing board.
The problem with going all in on electability is that the Libertarian Party failed to assure their nominee was an ideological libertarian at all. Besides anti-drug war statements and a desire to scale back U.S. military involvement overseas- two things also offered by Donald Trump- it is a challenge to find any meaningful libertarianism coming from Gary Johnson at all.
Did Hillary Clinton commit a crime by mishandling top secret emails and lying about it? No, says Johnson, she is a “wonderful public servant,” and a “great kid” according to vice presidential nominee Bill Weld.
“We want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom,” said Weld. This is a great line, that if backed up by consistent policy proposals, could help voters understand the philosophy that supposedly underpins the Libertarian Party.
Unfortunately for those who would very much like to see the Libertarian Party do just one thing right for once, according to Johnson, it would “be [his] contention” that the government should force Jewish bakers to bake cakes for Nazi events. So much for getting government out of your business.
But all of this is what the Libertarian Party signed up for. The Libertarian Party knew the anti-libertarian ideology they were getting with Johnson and Weld. Remember- the party put all of their chips in the viability basket, and seemingly didn’t even make Johnson read about freedom of assembly in an attempt to hedge their bets. But, Johnson’s surrogates assured the Libertarian Party, when Johnson hits 15% and gets on the debate stage, it will be worth it.
Johnson’s campaign strategy- which is based around getting 15% in the polls, not winning the election, mind you- hinges on support from three important coalitions: disaffected #NeverTrump Republicans, spurned Bernie supporters, and those fed up with the major parties looking to cast a protest vote. The combination of the three would surely be enough to generate 15% polling numbers and break into the debates- once there, even if Johnson didn’t win, enough people would see and like the Libertarian message to generate momentum heading into 2018.
That strategy so far has been, without question, an absolute failure. Why?
- #NeverTrump Republicans have either resigned themselves to a caboose seat on the Trump Train or have decided to just stay home, unable to bring themselves to vote for a pro-choice candidate.
- Disaffected Bernie supporters are either following their “revolutionary” leader’s lead and supporting Clinton or voting for Trump as a protest vote.
- Trump has surged ahead with independent voters, who see him as more of a protest vote than Johnson.
“Okay, fine,” a Johnson supporter may say, “but what about actual polling? How is Johnson doing nationally?”
Well, he’s getting schlonged. According to RealClearPolitics, as of July 30th, Johnson is sitting at 7.0%- barely enough to qualify the LP for federal funding next election cycle, and less than half of what he needs to participate in the presidential debates.
The “he’s just getting started” argument cannot be used to explain this. The last stand for #NeverTrump Republicans was last week at the Republican National Convention. The Democratic National Committee’s hacked emails were just released, confirming that the DNC had helped Clinton defeat Sanders in the primary.
And yet, Johnson has actually been declining in the polls since these two stories came out. With huge money coming in now for the RNC, DNC, and both of the two main parties’ presidential campaigns, it looks like Johnson’s window to gain support has been closed on his fingers.
To learn from this year- and possibly the biggest missed opportunity in American electoral history- the Libertarian Party first needs to remember something every parent tells their teenager before their first date or job interview: you only get one shot at a first impression.
One thing needs to be established- most people have no idea what libertarianism is, and frankly, you can’t blame them. Before the Libertarian Party has any electoral success, they will have to be represented by a candidate who can eloquently advocate for libertarian principles and explain why small government is generally the best option.
When it comes to 2020, Libertarians will have a new mountain to climb, and must again answer the two questions posed at the beginning of this article; they must find a balance between ideological libertarianism and electoral viability.
They have seen what happens when they put all of their chips on viability. Only time will tell if they place their bets differently next time.