Legal weed, a gun in every hand, and a zero percent income tax. These are the often-cited utopian images libertarians peddle when convincing traditional voters to switch. While weed, guns, and money sound more like the theme of a hip-hop hit than a political philosophy, it could become a reality if libertarians had their way. Consider that as you worry about a future under Donald Trump.
Although the Libertarian Party had their chance in 2016, they did not have their way with the electorate. A recent article published in Reason gives an in-depth look into the 2016 scene from the perspective of the fastest growing party in America.
The article asks the question, “Did the Libertarian Party blow it in 2016?” To answer – yes, for the most part, the LP blew it in 2016. Facing an election that featured two headlines-only candidates in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the LP had the opportunity to garner attention in a campaign that was about anything but the issues.
After some controversy at the party convention, the LP nominated Gary Johnson, a tw0-term Republican governor of New Mexico. Johnson was supposed to have credibility as the only candidate with executive experience on the Presidential ticket – but his eccentricities were also his end.
Johnson passed Labor Day polling near 10 percent. By just providing a third voice that was neither Trump nor Clinton, the LP had a chance to reach new voters, then came Aleppo.
To be fair to Johnson, even MSNBC host Mike Barnicle said he didn’t blame Johnson for not knowing. It was likely the first time that both Aleppo and Gary Johnson appeared in the national headlines, yet voters once again wrote off the Libertarian Party before ever really considering it.
Neither Clinton nor Trump had been subject to such scrutiny over the Syrian city, but the gaffe showed Johnson’s and the LP’s lack of preparation for the spotlight. Although both Clinton and Trump had their share of scandals, they were able to recover because of the people and money around them. Without that same support, Johnson was left whipped in the political wind.
The rising third party once again met the post-Labor Day fate so many before it had in the past. Once the time to make a decision was short, voters went with what they knew, and they understood that Johnson wasn’t the man for the job.
Poll numbers deteriorated from near 10 percent to an Election Day total of four and a half million popular votes, good for 3.28 percent.
While the LP posted a record total of votes for a third-party candidate and a party record of $12 million raised during the campaign, it still fell short of five percent, which would have given the party automatic status and money from the Federal Election Commission in 2020. Further, it failed to make an impact on the way Presidential debates are presented, although an appeal is pending.
13 years after leaving office in New Mexico, Johnson’s rust showed through, and the party found itself without the shine to fix it. With Clinton fresh off a four-year stint as Secretary of State and Trump as, well, Trump the odds were never in the favor of the unprepared.
Whim or want?
It is possible that Johnson never really had a chance at 15 percent or higher. He could have fallen victim to the post-Labor Day focus regardless or saved his “Aleppo moment” for the debate stage if he would have gotten there. The polls were wrong about Trump, and they could have been wrong about Johnson too.
If 2016 wasn’t the time to move past Johnson after also lacking luster in 2012, 2020 certainly is. Either by choice or by the demand of the public, a candidate will emerge who could right the electoral wrongs of the last election – just maybe. If that candidate finds himself or herself a libertarian, it is the responsibility of the party to prepare that candidate for the governmental gauntlet he or she will face in the campaign.
Although the voter’s desire for a third choice often isn’t based on a whim, it ended as such for Johnson. 2016 was like nothing the country had ever seen before, yet still, we ponder what could have been.
Brad Omland served as a state coordinator for the Our America Initiative for the Gary Johnson for President campaign in 2012 and earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of South Dakota in May 2013. Follow him on Twitter: @bradradio.