Think of all the voters you’ve met over the recent years who describe themselves as having a libertarian streak — and it’s easy to understand why the country’s largest third party sees a bright future on its horizon. Not without a few obstacles, though.
As conservatives cry for smaller government, slashed spending, and balanced budgets, the libertarian philosophy has basked in the national spotlight with the grass-roots popularity of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) — who ran on the Libertarian ticket in 1988 and remains an honorary lifetime member of the party.
The 41-year-old party has arguably its most prominent ticket yet this year with former two-term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who originally angled for the GOP nomination, and Jim Gray, formerly the presiding judge of the Orange County, Calif., Superior Court.
Party leadership — and the presidential nominee himself — hotly contest the suggestion that a vote for the GOP governor would “steal” the election from likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
“There seems to be this very perverse myth that Libertarians steal votes from Republicans,” former party chairman Mark Hinkle told PJM. With a focus on civil liberties issues, “I think it’s very likely we’re going to take far more votes from Democrats than Republicans this time around,” he added, calling President Obama a “third-term Bush” on the Patriot Act.
In a state like California, he argued, where there’s “no way in heck” that the Republicans would win anyway, “if we steal 100 percent of the votes it’s not going to have an impact.”
Executive Director Carla Howell argued that there is precious little difference between Obama and Romney on the issues that matter to Libertarians. “Every big government expansion that Obama has backed, Romney has backed, too,” she said.
“If you want smaller government, lower taxes, real stimulation of the economy, getting government out of the way, vote Libertarian,” she told PJM. “If you want more of the same … then vote either Democrat or Republican.”
“Voting for either one of them is going to make things worse,” Howell added. “It’s going to perpetuate big government. Things are getting desperate in this country. We can’t afford to keep big government politicians in office ruining this country. We must change things now. Gary Johnson proposes cutting in the trillions; that’s what we need to do to stop bleeding red ink.”
On socialization of health care, Hinkle said, another issue of importance to Libertarians in this election, “both Obama and Mitt Romney have bought into it.”
The candidate himself said that the only poll he knows of on the “spoiler” question, conducted in his home state, “actually showed that I took more votes away from Obama.” A new Reason-Rupe survey, released after Johnson spoke with PJM, found that the “difficult to categorize” Johnson voters could tip swing-state Wisconsin either way.
“I just don’t see support for Romney coming from pot smokers,” Johnson said, or noninterventionists, or budget-slashers, etc. “I think that I crush Obama when it comes to dollars and cents. … I think I crush Romney when it comes to civil liberties.”
He references a recent Reason-Rupe poll that found 80 percent of respondents saying they would or might consider voting for an independent or third-party presidential candidate in 2012. But, he added, “they’re not going to vote for a third party if they don’t even know who the third party is.”
Johnson switched to the Libertarian Party in December after his try at the Republican nod, and was nominated to the Libertarian ticket earlier this month at the party’s convention in Nevada. But Johnson told PJM that he’s always identified as Libertarian, much like the higher-profile Libertarian-leaning Republicans today.
“You’ll always be able to know where a Libertarian stands on the issues,” he said of his attraction to the party, which began by reading some books on the philosophy in 1971. He ran as a Republican, though, seeing “I was never going to get elected as a Libertarian — to this day, that really still is the case.”
Are there any true Libertarians in Congress today? Johnson cites Tea Party favorite Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and says he’s sure there are “dozens” that lean Libertarian such as Paul; Hinkle says “to a lesser extent” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is following in his dad’s Libertarian footsteps. Howell calls Paul “essentially Libertarian.”
“Beyond that, you have to drop way down the ranks to get some slight Libertarians,” Hinkle said, adding that Americans probably got their best taste of an independent candidacy when Jesse Ventura won the governor’s mansion in Minnesota. “I think the people up there were as frustrated as they are now,” he said.
But does the trend of Libertarian acceptance in places like Congress mean that this third party is on the path to becoming a major player in American politics? Voters consistently complain about not having more options to choose from in a race, but will this discontent solidify into third-party backing and registration?
Howell notes that the major parties have grand-scale voter participation campaigns and bases that are very disciplined about voting. If more Americans “get off the couch once every two years” and vote, she said, “that’s what will change America and it may be what will save America.”
“Don’t vote or vote for the status quo — either way, you get the status quo,” Hinkle said.
Hinkle said he expects the continued integration of Libertarian ideals into candidates’ platforms once they realize that Americans are clamoring for less government. “If the Democrats and Republicans see these ideas start to gain popularity, they’re going to co-opt those ideas,” he said.
“If people don’t think third parties have a chance, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he added.
Johnson noted the cool factor that Libertarian ideals enjoy in a growing segment of American politics today. “No politician seems to shy away from being labeled a Libertarian,” he said.
One of the challenges for any third-party is getting face time with the American public. You can’t get into the debates if you don’t meet a certain threshold in polls set by parties and networks, but you need the polling organizations to include you in the first place.
Hinkle said if polls included Johnson, he feels that the nominee could clear the 15 percent threshold to be included in the presidential debates. “It’s a goalpost that Republicans and Democrats have set,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Gary Johnson pulled close they’d push it to 20 percent. Any way you shape it, it’s pure politics. It is the system we have to live with.”
Howell feels it’s “possible” that Johnson will be included in the debates.
“It’s going to take running the best campaign we can, a modicum of fairness from major media that controls the debate, and willingness on the part of Democrats and Republicans to be fair and inclusive and give voters real choice,” she said.
“The mission would actually be to win,” Johnson said. “I realize that’s really pie in the sky” — but if he gets on that debate stage, he said, “anything is possible.”
“I have more executive experience than Obama and Romney combined,” he added.
Another obstacle for the party is getting on the ballot in the first place. The Libertarian Party currently has ballot access in 29 states. Hinkle said in some states Libertarians will have to run as independents as “Republicans and Democrats have put all sorts of roadblocks to getting ballot access.”
Johnson, who vetoed 750 bills with just two overrides in a Democratic state during his two terms, said that “as governor of New Mexico I saw a lot of legislation that made ballot access easier — I always signed on to that legislation. I always made it easier.”
Howell said the party boasts a “growing list” of candidates running for office this year from congressional to state races, but continually has to battle the ballot access obstacles that arise due to everything from gerrymandering to “the power of incumbency that we’re up against.”
“Our candidates are a longshot, but they have a much better chance of winning than you do when you buy a lottery ticket,” she said.
Howell said she see the trend toward Libertarianism as more people hear about the party. “Every election cycle, the Democrats and Republicans lose credibility and voter approval,” she said. “People come to see that Libertarians are offering what they want: less government, fiscal sanity, more peace, lower crime, more financial security, and above all more jobs — private sector jobs.”
Hinkle said a path to his party is being carved by the machinations of Washington. “If Republicans and Democrats continue to botch things as they have, the frustration will continue to grow,” he said.
Johnson said that recent polling showing that half of Americans support marijuana legalization is just one example of people talking more about the personal responsibility and balanced budget ideology of his party.
“There is nothing about being a Libertarian that I cannot and will not defend,” Johnson said. “I don’t think either of the two old parties are identifying the solutions at all.”