Spend five minutes with a Libertarian, and chances are they'll start talking about what's wrong with the Federal Reserve, taxes, speed limits, the war on drugs, national borders, gun laws, and any number of other government intrusions on personal liberty. Spend ten minutes with Libertarians, and they'll let you know that everyone agrees with them. Most Americans are socially liberal but fiscally conservative, the argument goes, so those people are actually libertarian-leaning already—they just "don't realize it," as Libertarian Party (LP) presidential candidate Gary Johnson told me in 2012.
They sure didn't realize it that year. Johnson got about 1 percent of the national vote in the 2012 election—not bad for an American third-party candidate, but well short of the 5 percent that the LP needs to qualify for federal funding, and less than half of the percentage Ralph Nader got for the Green Party in 2000.
Four years later, things are maybe, possibly looking up for Johnson and the Libertarians. Multiple polls this month found him with double-digit support in a hypothetical three-way race with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. This might be a sign of how hated the major-party candidates are rather than a outpouring of love for libertarianism. Johnson himself admitted to Politico that if "Mickey Mouse were in a poll, he'd be getting thirty percent." But for whatever reason, the LP is suddenly in the spotlight, and it's a strange and uncomfortable place for the party to be.
The LP convention, held this past weekend in Orlando, Florida, ended with the nomination of Johnson and his running mate William Weld, a result that should have made the party seem serious. Before he became a pot entrepreneur, Johnson was the Republican governor of New Mexico, and Weld is a former Massachusetts governor who is so mainstream that he's disliked by many Libertarians. Compared to Trump, Johnson and Weld are a boring pair, the sort of candidates that a third party in search of legitimacy should be nominating.
Coverage of the convention, however, focused on the nutty sideshows. Libertarianism at its broadest is just a dislike of government intrusion into people's private lives, but in practice, that can range from "I should be allowed to smoke pot and own guns" to "I should be allowed to drive a tank around my survivalist compound, which, by the way, I have mostly filled with sex workers, endangered animals, and unpasteurized milk."
At the LP debate, Johnson's support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and driver's licenses drew boos, but his proposal to legalize drugs was a position presumably shared by most of the audience. As Slate's Seth Stevenson reported, Johnson's competition included the wild-eyed, woke-as-fuck software pioneer John McAfee; a guy who only takes campaign contributions in the form of cryptocurrency and precious metals; and a medical doctor who delivered his debate statements in a form closer to slam poetry that is actually pretty good, I think? Also, at one point a big guy with a beard stripped down to his thong.
This is the space most third parties exist in. They're perpetual benchwarmers who know they'll never be asked to step in for the starters, and are free to goof off, to dream big and get wacky, to wear suits with sneakers and T-shirts with blazers (another big thing that libertarians support). The difference for the LP in 2016 is that people are treating it seriously, and the combination leads to a lot of negative attention.
Stevenson wrote that "the Libertarian Party isn't close to ready—or maybe doesn't ever want to be ready—for political prime time." Ian Tuttle of the National Review made some of the same points in his convention writeup, saying, "the Libertarian party is a reminder that no one truly grows out of Dungeons and Dragons…. Organization-wise, it's the political equivalent of the cantina scene from Star Wars."
Beyond the weird anti-nerd burns, it's true that small, underfunded political parties aren't as slick as the Democrats or Republicans. It's also unfair to show up to a convention for a lost cause, then dismiss the crowd as losers. And were any of the assembled weirdos at the LP stranger than, say, Ben Carson?
Meanwhile, as people who hate both Trump and Clinton consider Johnson, they'll have to actually look at his positions, which may very well turn them off as well. Earlier this month, conservative pundit Erick Erickson wrote that the LP needed to "grow up" by pandering to #NeverTrump Republicans who hate gay marriage and abortion. Others on the right might have problems with Johnson saying that "religious freedom" laws are often pretenses to allow for discrimination against gay people. As for leftists and liberals unhappy with Clinton, they might look at the LP's stances on gun control (boooo) and climate change (not the government's problem, generally), and decide that the Green Party's Jill Stein is a better protest vote.
Johnson will need to get 15 percent in five national polls to qualify for the general election presidential debates—a tall order, since his name isn't even included on all surveys. Even if that's impossible, getting 5 percent of the vote nationally would give the LP a boost in 2020, and maybe attract a better class of candidate. This is a chance, as nearly everyone has said, for the Libertarian Party to grow and turn into a true political force. But 2016 will be a tipping point either way. If, despite a pair of unpopular major-party candidates and this wave of exposure, the LP can't get more than a couple percentage points of voters to sign on, it won't be the beginning of a new era for the movement—it'll be the end.
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