Interest in Libertarian Party surges as alienated Republicans search for an alternative
In the aftermath of the sudden and unexpected withdrawal of both Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich from the presidential race, effectively crushing a #NeverTrump movement working towards a contested convention, and handing Donald Trump the Republican nomination on a silver platter, an already divided Republican Party has begun tearing itself apart. Chaos reigns as influential members of the #NeverTrump faction decide whether their pledges to oppose Trump were merely a desperate bluff intended to steer voters towards Cruz, or, in fact, sincere pledges to oppose him, no matter what.
Talk of third-party alternatives from liberty-leaning pundits like Glenn Beck was to be expected, but even House Speaker Paul Ryan has stated that he’s “not ready to back Trump.” Of course, many Republicans have already invoked the Buckley Rule, grimly resolving to support a nominee they despise for no other reason than to keep Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, away from the Oval Office, but for the first time in recent history, there is little doubt that some prominent Republicans will endorse a third-party candidate.
How many will defect? Who will they support? And what effect will that have on the race? This remains to be seen, but there are already signs that 2016 could be the year of the Libertarian.
Founded in 1971 on a platform of limited government and a high degree of personal and economic liberty, the Libertarian Party (LP) is the third largest party in the country. Although its presidential nominees, excluded from primetime debates and most media coverage, have struggled to win even 1% of the popular vote, the party reports that the number of membership applications have doubled following Cruz’s campaign-ending loss in Indiana. Meanwhile, Google searches for terms like “Libertarian Party” and “Gary Johnson” (more on him in a moment) spiked dramatically. The wave of publicity continued to build as the national media breathlessly reported that longtime Republican strategist and pundit Mary Matalin changed her registration to Libertarian on Thursday (though she remains open to supporting Trump).
There’s no doubt that many Republicans are unhappy with their presumptive options in November, and it’s to be expected that many of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters will be similarly disillusioned in the likely event of Clinton’s nomination. If any party can attract both conservatives and progressives, it’s the LP, with its commitment to cutting taxes and reigning in federal power, and its relaxed attitude towards social issues (i.e., legalizing marijuana).
But voters don’t vote for political parties or their platforms. They vote for candidates.
With both major parties poised to nominate the most unpopular frontrunners in most voters’ lifetimes, the LP has a golden – no, a historic – opportunity to compete in a three-way presidential race, share its ideas with more voters than ever before, and perhaps even win a few electoral votes and throw the election to the House; all important steps towards achieving major-party status. But it can only do this with the right nominee.
Out of several candidates seeking the party’s nomination, Gov. Gary Johnson is, by far, the most pragmatic choice. A self-made millionaire who successfully ran for governor as a Republican in a blue state – twice! – he sought the Republican nomination for president in 2012, but had little impact in the crowded televised debates, and subsequently ran as a Libertarian instead. Although other contenders, including John McAfee, Austin Peterson, and Darryl W. Perry are arguably better representatives of libertarianism in terms of ideological purity – and who wouldn’t like to see McAfee ripping into Hillary Clinton in a televised debate? – Johnson’s experience as a Republican governor makes him uniquely qualified to broaden the party’s appeal during a time when many Republicans are wishing for an alternative.
Johnson already polls in double digits in a three-way race against Trump and Clinton, an impressive feat for any third-party candidate. And that’s with minimal media attention and little name recognition. With a few endorsements from high-profile Republicans and a well-funded campaign targeting alienated Republicans and Democrats, as well as the fortyish percent of voters who identify as independents (according to Gallup), it’s entirely possible that Johnson could take nearly a quarter of the popular vote. And if he managed to win even a handful of electoral votes, it’s entirely possible that neither Trump nor Clinton would receive the 270 required to win, allowing the Republican-controlled House to elect one of the top three candidates. Considering that some of the representatives would be lame ducks, voted out in the general election and unconcerned about future primaries, a former Republican governor might fare surprisingly well in such circumstances.
For a truly competitive three-way race to become a reality, Johnson will need high-profile endorsements. Not just from libertarian favorites like the beloved Ron Paul (a life member of the LP despite his Republican affiliation) and Rep. Justin Amash, but from influential conservatives who wouldn’t typically stray from the Republican fold, like Glenn Beck. Public support from more mainstream Republicans like Paul Ryan is less likely, but not unthinkable. Such endorsements would attract the funding necessary to run a visible national campaign.
Of course, this hypothetical scenario depends on a number of factors. What if the LP doesn’t nominate Johnson? What if Sanders runs against Clinton as an independent? What if she gets indicted, and the strangest election of the 21st century becomes even more of a circus?
A clearer picture will emerge soon, but for now, Libertarian Gary Johnson is the candidate to watch.