Report from the LP Convention: The Presidential Candidates

Live From The LP National Convention: The Presidential Nominations

by Avens O’Brien

I’m sitting in the main hall of the Libertarian Party National Convention right now, writing this just before the debate starts between five of the LP’s candidates for president.

Yesterday I landed in Orlando, Florida, where over the course of this weekend, I and approximately 1,000 other delegates will choose president and vice president candidates for this year’s election.

This is one of the most exciting years for the Libertarian Party. The Democrats and the Republicans have each managed to select their least likable nominees, and for the first time, many people are paying attention to us as a potentially viable alternative option.

We also have an incredible roster of candidates. At the convention there are six candidates fighting for our nomination, but in terms of polling popularity and national attention, there are three standout candidates this year, and they’re all worthy of attention and consideration.

I’d like to offer short honorable mentions first. To Darryl Perry, who is running a hard-line, philosophically-consistent campaign, who has helped our party by continuing to move the conversation further where it needs to go. Perry often refers to himself as “the libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party”, and his influence can be felt in the debates, even when he himself is not a participant. Another honorable mention should go to Marc Feldman, who has launched a small but passionate campaign, and according to the iSideWith quiz that another candidate recommended I take, I match with highest of all. I don’t know Kevin McCormick well, but he is also running, and deserves a mention.

However, politics inevitably boils down to a kind of popularity contest, and the three most popular candidates by media attention and buzz have been Gary Johnson, Austin Petersen, and John McAfee.

Gary Johnson was our nominee in 2012. He is a former governor, an avid advocate for cannabis legalization, and a common sense, non-threatening candidate. He simplifies his understanding of Libertarianism not with the principle of non-aggression but with “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”. This description of the Libertarian Party is not new – though there’s some contention about exactly how accurate it is. It’s reframing ourselves in mainstream lingo, and there’s a certain appeal in that.

I like Johnson. I supported him in 2012, I supported him early in this race, and I think he’s done a good job of presenting a non-threatening Libertarian candidate to the general population. Honestly, given the behavior of some Libertarians I know on the internet, I can appreciate when a Libertarian can legitimately describe their communication method as “non-aggressive”, which he can.

Johnson has particular strengths and weaknesses. He says a lot of things that appear to come from a good-hearted place, such as not wanting to defend bigotry or oppression, but leads to him accidentally proposing we ban burqas or should limit the freedom of association between individuals of particular religious or political perspectives. I don’t think he really wants to do these things, mind you – I think he’s trying to take a moderate approach to Libertarian issues to instigate broader appeal. But it comes across as if perhaps he doesn’t reflect upon these topics in order to check them against a basic principle (of not using force, for example), and it leads to moments where he gets flustered over needing to adjust his comments.

I appreciate that he’s willing to admit when he said something wrong or been misrepresented and attempts to clarify, but I wish his foot wasn’t quite so fond of his mouth. His performance in the debates this year has left something to be desired. It feels like he doesn’t actually want to be doing this at all, and his statements that should be filled with passion come across deflated.

Quite frankly, as our nominee, I worry that Johnson would not be able to hold his own in the main debates with Clinton and Trump. I worry he’ll get flustered and off-message, and will spend more time trying to clarify his statements rather than influencing the electorate, and that a mainstream media that wants the drama of Trump will not have the attention span to handle Gary’s monotone defense of liberty.

Next, we have Austin Petersen, a liberty activist and owner of this website (which receives more unique views every month than votes Johnson received in the last election). Petersen’s young, at only 35 years old, and he appears to be chomping at the bit to fight with the big leagues, which is why you can find him nipping at Johnson’s heels so often. His remarks come off over-rehearsed, but as a former TV producer, he knows the value of a good soundbite, and he’s certainly making sure his campaign utilizes them in his push to make Libertarianism mainstream.

There are some who say that Petersen would be a good choice to ensure a Clinton presidency. Though he indicates he believes he can pull equally from the left and the right (and makes sure to incorporate messaging frequently that courts each team), his pro-life stance and obvious positioning of himself as the option for disgruntled Ted Cruz supporters and the heir to Ron Paul’s legacy make him a little more a darling of the Right. When you add endorsements from Mary Matalin, Erick Erickson, and the friendly support-albeit-non-endorsement of Glenn Beck, he definitely seems like someone that will motivate #NeverTrump Republicans.

One of Petersen’s most appealing attributes has been his willingness to evolve. Petersen is an example of what millennials face in today’s world: we grew up on the internet, and the stupid things we said “when we were young” are written in internet ink. Petersen came of age on the internet, and his past flippancy, trolling, poor word choices are available for the world to see with a simple Google search. This hurts him. However, he is also evolving. In the two years I’ve known him, I’ve watched him go from being constantly hostile to feminism to qualifying his statements regarding feminism to address the diversity within the ideology, because he is smart enough to find people who challenge his ideas and learn from them – and one of them was me.  

Petersen also takes advice. Each debate performance he has listened to what others have told him, and he’s calibrated and adjusted to improve his articulations and his emphasis when warranted. I have watched him get better with every single debate, and even when I heavily disagree with him on things like the non-aggression principle and abortion rights, I’m surprised at how often he’s managed to impress me.

Lastly, we have John McAfee. McAfee is running an exciting campaign with daring, risky methods. His Vice Presidential pick wrote a piece tearing apart the party’s stagnation while explaining why he’s running. McAfee admits to drug use and other illicit activities in his past, and he has a whirlwind tale of his experiences in Belize. His deep voice narrating his #VoteDifferent campaign video is charismatic and powerful. His opening and closing statements at debates are unpredictable (though often either entertaining or simply bluntly astute). Many delegates aren’t sure what to make of him – is he serious, and does his sometimes outrageous commentary disqualify him from consideration by a more “mainstream” audience?

McAfee is a different animal than we’re used to, and here at the Libertarian Party we’re used to weird and outrageous, but McAfee takes it a step further. His party membership is fairly recent, and his loyalty and his “purity” has been called into question at times.

McAfee is what I consider a Libertarian success story. He was someone who had some Libertarian ideas, but didn’t identify as a Libertarian. He’s someone who is clearly unoffended by drugs, prostitution, or various moral concerns many other people may have. Someone reached out to him about being a Libertarian and he woke up. He is exactly the “wake up” story we all refer to. The basic concept of non-aggression was explained to him, and his thoughtful, critical and active mind took that concept and began applying it down the line to each of his ideas about how the world should be arranged and how government should work. Suddenly a spark became a fire, and all his previous notions of these things died in that fire – and he was left with liberty.

I see this in how he talks about issues – it’s one of the reasons I trust him. He doesn’t prepare much or at all for his debates because he isn’t there to quote rehearsed talking points, he gets asked a question and it’s like he flashes it past a sensor in his brain that says “Use force? Answer no. Voluntary? Yes, now say something that makes them laugh.” There’s something tremendously compelling about his candidacy, in that he seems so uncensored, real, and genuine.

However, my interest in McAfee exploded when his team began reaching out to me to help with their Vote Different initiative. They realized that the Libertarian Party is about more than just the presidential race that happens every four years. It’s about every down-ticket candidate struggling for resources and support, trying to represent a Libertarian option on the ballot. As someone who had been experienced with a state party affiliate and smaller campaigns, they had me help with some of the questions they wanted to ask other affiliates and other candidates. What do they need? How can we help support them?

McAfee asked his team to begin reaching out to candidates, but there was one problem – there was no place to find them all. In 48 hours, volunteers coded up the first and only database to help index candidates and help connect volunteers to them.

The campaign also reached out to these candidates to verify their information and began asking them what resources and support they needed. Many candidates lacked basic things like social media or websites. More volunteers worked to create websites, build templates, and provide webinars to give crash courses in the necessity of an online presence.

Then McAfee learned about Joshua Miller. Miller is running for Congress in Iowa as a Libertarian candidate. Miller mentioned to his contact at the campaign that his own campaign had been hit with a massive defeat: he wasn’t allowed in the debate with the Democrat and Republican.

When McAfee heard about this, he asked for the contact information for the debate organizer. He called them personally and pressured them to reconsider this exclusion. Two hours later, the debate organizer called Miller to confirm he would be included in the debate.

This is the essence of the #votedifferent campaign. How can we help these candidates who are presenting the Libertarian option to the voters? A wasted vote to a Libertarian is one where a voter walks into a voting booth and they have no Libertarian option to choose.

McAfee gave a ten minute speech to the delegation here in Orlando tonight, and in it he mentioned something I referred to in a speech I gave to the Minnesota state party in April. That measuring our success by the votes cast for our president misses the larger point. His point, which I’m paraphrasing, was:

“Let us not delude ourselves that I will occupy the Oval Office. That’s not what the next few months will be about. I will not occupy the Oval Office. But we must occupy the hearts and the minds of the American people.”

This is a powerful message, and one that can unite Libertarian Party activists, as well as the greater libertarian movement. We need to win hearts and minds. That is what changes the conversation. It raises money. It affects policy. It gives us the chance to eventually win.

The debate has now started, and there’s a group of phenomenally qualified, competitive individuals who are here to tell us why they should be our nominee.

What I see when I look at the political landscape out there is that the “safer road” has not served the major party candidates this year. I watch the circus out there and I realize how tired people are of the “safe” road. I realize that people are waking up to how much this political process is nonsense, and how hungry they are for people who challenge the status quo and surprise their expectations.

I know that on Sunday morning my vote is going to John McAfee. But what I also know is that we have a phenomenal roster of candidates and I will be happy to support whichever candidate eventually gets the nomination. I’m not going to take my ball and go home if “my team” doesn’t win. In fact, where I see weaknesses in any of them, I’d lend my volunteer hours and support to help make up for it.  I want our eventual nominee to be at their best 

I’m voting different on Sunday morning, and I’ll keep voting different – because I’m a Libertarian, and this election season and this convention has done a lot to make me very, very proud of that.

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