Here’s Why The Libertarian Party’s 2016 Strategy Has Failed

Johnson and Weld, Ohio, Libertarian

By Jordan LaPorta

2016 was supposed to be the Libertarian Party’s year. When the LP convention began in May, everything on the political landscape had played out perfectly. Republicans had rejected conservatism in its selection of Alt-Right populist Donald Trump, and Democrats embraced corruption in their selection of scandal-ridden Hillary Clinton. Both candidates were fairly unpopular, even with voters in their respective parties. People desperately wanted something different.  All the Libertarian Party needed to do was to hold serve. Forward a sane message, avoid critical mistakes, and the debate stage was all but guaranteed.

But the fall tells the story of summer’s promises gone unfulfilled. It is now the end of September, and the Libertarian Party is once again absent from the major debate stage. LP nominee Gary Johnson failed to earn a 15 percent average across major national polls, and was therefore barred from competing against Trump and Clinton by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Whether or not the 15 percent mark is fair is a topic for another conversation. Regardless of the nature of the rule, the bar was in place, the LP knew that it was, and this was the year — if ever there was one — that it could be reached. Despite this knowledge, and despite the widespread dissatisfaction amongst the general electorate, Johnson came up short.

Normally, this would not be a problem, or at least not a surprise. Third party candidates are often dismissed as un-serious individuals with little credibility and an even smaller chance at meaningful impact. But Johnson, and his incredibly un-libertarian running mate Bill Weld, were sold as the only serious candidates that could act as the “adults in the room” and would ultimately make the debate stage. That is the very case that their advocates made at the convention.

At the time, the argument made sense. The electorate was ripe for the picking, and Americans needed to be presented with a serious and professional option from the LP. Both men were governors of blue states with records defensible to a general election audience. Johnson had run before, and Weld had significant experience working with major donors. All of these characteristics are factors that make for good nominees.

Because of these qualifications, committed ideologues in the party were told that the lack of purity would be rewarded with electoral success. By going with the “libertarian-lite” option, the ticket would be more palatable to disaffected Republicans, Democrats, and the moderate middle. Johnson and Weld could serve as a gateway drug of sorts, exposing many in the electorate to libertarianism for the first time.

But as the election has run its course, none of these factors has made a significant difference. The policy experience of the former governors has been cancelled out by inconsistent statements throughout the cycle. Johnson has made one embarrassing appearance after another on national television, including the infamous “what is Aleppo?” incident. Furthermore, the divisive cake debate was not just an ideological atrocity, but also an act of political suicide. By coming out against religious freedom in the case of public accommodations, Johnson alienated his biggest potential block of support: Never Trumpers. Weld, who brought with him a reputation as a fundraising wizard for the GOP, has failed to produce any big-time donors for the ticket.

It has not helped that discontented Republicans and Democrats have rallied around their candidates out of fear that the opponent will get elected. The scare-machines in the establishment have been effectively able to dispel the notion that any vote for Johnson — or Jill Stein — matters. But regardless, when it came to the Johnson-Weld ticket, the LP over-promised and under-delivered.

Libertarians should feel hoodwinked by the party’s failure to make the debate stage in 2016. Many well-intentioned libertarians were willing to set aside ideological purity in order to advance the movement’s principles to the largest possible audience. But after all the cringe-worthy moments, all of the excuses, and all of the ideological gymnastics,  the LP still has the same number of presidential debate appearances as it did before the cycle started: zero.

Yesterday, a CNN/ORC poll showed that 47 percent were not more persuaded to vote for Trump or Clinton based on their answers in the debate. There is anger; there is frustration. Absent several sophomoric moves, a more competent LP nominee would be an outlet for the rage and could easily make the stage as a third option.

2016 seems like a lost cause at this point, and hindsight is always 20/20. But maybe — just maybe — the LP should select a real libertarian in 2020. At least then, when the party comes up short again, it can proudly say it stood on principle and refused to sell its soul for nothing .


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