Did the Libertarian Party blow it in 2016?

Author:Doherty, Brian

OBJECTIVELY SPEAKING, 2016 was the Libertarian Party's best year ever. It was also a savage disappointment.


On the positive side, the presidential ticket of two former Republican governors, Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts, received more than 4.46 million votes, amounting (as of press time) to 3.28 percent of the national haul, smashing the party's previous highs of 1.28 million and 1.06 percent, respectively. The L.P. nominee was on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the first time since 2000, and he outperformed the Green Party's Jill Stein in each one.

"We are the only political party in the country that's growing," Libertarian Party National Chair Nicholas Sarwark crowed the morning after the election. "We've tripled our vote totals [over] 2012.... We control a bloc of the electorate that covers the spread in almost all if not all of the battleground states. We've beaten the other third party...in every single state."

For the first time, the L.P. now has more than a half-million registered voters. The Johnson/Weld campaign raised around $12 million, according to internal accounts (the final Federal Election Commission reports have not yet been filed). That destroys the previous record of $3.5 million, set in 1980 (and $2.1 million of the 1980 total came from billionaire vice-presidential candidate David Koch). The national party pulled in nearly $3 million in additional donations this year, too. U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller of Alaska received 30 percent of the vote in his race, the highest such total in party history--especially impressive as he had both a Republican and a Democratic opponent. (Generally, if an L.P. candidate for any legislative seat gets double-digit percentages, it's because one of the major parties sat the race out.) GOP defections in 2016 also gave the L.P. sitting state legislators in Nevada, Nebraska, and Utah.

All told, the party has come a long way since its founding in 1971, when a small gang of dreamers hoped it would become a vehicle to get press attention for libertarian ideas.

Still, measured against expectations--let alone the basic standard that successful political parties must win elections--the Libertarian Party had its most disappointing year ever.

"We wanted to win, and we didn't achieve that goal," Johnson's campaign manager, Ron Nielson, acknowledged shortly after the election. "We were hoping to get into the presidential debate, and no matter how hard we tried we could not achieve that goal. After that our goal was to get 5 percent, and for the last 45 days we pushed toward that effort, which was entirely achievable but for the fact that the election came down to such a tight margin between Clinton and Trump. That put pressure on third-party support, and a lot of Johnson support moved in the end toward Trump, or possibly chose not to participate."

While 3.28 percent marked an all-time high for the party, it was also just a third of the campaign's highest polling average, which came in late July. All summer long Johnson had avoided the typical third-party fade, with such forecasters as Five Thirty Eight projecting a finish higher than 7 percent for months on end. But the plates came crashing down over the final eight weeks, prompting much anguish and fingerpointing among activists and supporters.

"The Libertarian Party," wrote 2016 L.P. presidential runner-up Austin Petersen on Election Day, "has blown a chance that it may never have again in my lifetime."

There was plenty of bad news to go along with Johnson's late collapse. One of the party's sitting state legislators, Utah Sen. Mark Madsen, did not run for re-election and will be gone in January. A second, Nevada Assemblyman John Moore, suffered what might be a historic mangling for an incumbent, finishing a distant third place with just 7 percent of the vote. (The third legislator, Nebraska Sen. Laura Ebke, faces re-election in 2018.) The party still has precious few elected officials, and many of those are in officially nonpartisan jobs.

The races that Libertarians were excited about before Election Day vastly underperformed expectations. Massachusetts U.S. House of Representatives candidate Thomas Simmons thought he actually might win against an incumbent Democrat with no Republican in the race, but he ended up with just 10 percent of the vote. Florida Senate candidate Paul Stanton anticipated 5 or 6 percent, after polling as high as 10 percent. He finished with just 2.

Most activists interviewed for this article presented a glass-half-full interpretation of the L.P.'s historic year. But assessing and strategizing the party's fortunes going forward will depend heavily on figuring out what went wrong and what went right with the Johnson/Weld campaign. And that question is still heavily in dispute.

"Wherever it turns out," Gary Johnson predicted on the morning of the election, "I think it's important to point out that last time it was 1 percent, and this time it's going to blow that away. For some, that's just horrible. For others it's recognized for big-time gains."


THE RECORD NUMBER of credentialed journalists at the Libertarian National Convention in May all seemed to be there to ask the same question: How could the L.P., facing two historically unpopular major-party candidates (including one total novice), do anything but nominate two popular governors with impressive national profiles? Yet even the internally admired Johnson, who had sailed through the process in 2012, needed two highly contested rounds of voting before he won the nomination. And his far more controversial vice presidential recommendation, amid noisy objections on the convention floor, barely squeaked by on a second ballot of his own. (For more on him, see "Bill Weld's Weird Tuesday" on page 56.)

Such intra-party division, while baffling to most outsiders, represents a real split not just in 2016, but in how party members size up next steps for 2018 and beyond. Roughly speaking, a more pragmatic camp wants to keep finding standard-bearers with real-world experience to sell a palatable, big-tent version of libertarianism that stresses fiscal conservatism and social toleration. A smaller group of radicals is increasingly impatient with recent converts who don't seem to grasp some fundamental tenets of the party's philosophy, and they worry that a posture of apologetic libertarianism will dilute the message and repel sympathizers. A third wing shares the radicals' preference for homegrown libertarianism but emphasizes polish and presentation over passion and philosophy.

These broad tendencies were on display before, during, and after the May Libertarian National Convention, where 928 delegates wrestled over what everyone agreed was a historic opportunity. Darryl W. Perry, a member of the L.P. Radical Caucus--a group whose goal is to "celebrate and promote the...

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