This was supposed to be the Libertarians’ year.
Both major party nominees were disliked at record-breaking levels – and yet together they amassed nearly 95 percent of the popular vote. Gary Johnson flirted with the 15 percent polling threshold needed to qualify for the debates – and yet what little momentum there was fizzled out, dwarfed by the binary nature of news coverage. For a brief moment, the Libertarians seemed like rational, level-headed alternatives to the tiresome charade of the two-party system - but before alienated voters could take them seriously, they shot themselves in the foot, proving that they were just the opposite.
In June, I had written how Donald Trump should not overlook the threat that a strong Gary Johnson candidacy could pose, as he could be to the Republican nominee what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in 2000: a spoiler candidate. If the race had been closer, then maybe this would’ve turned out to be true. But it was not. In hindsight, the Libertarian ticket failed because of self-imposed harm, reckless immaturity, and the unavoidable, unforeseen elephant-in-the-room of Donald Trump.
1. Trump hijacked the Libertarian Party's traditional source of momentum
From the start, Trump’s campaign oozed the anti-establishment, outsider appeal that third parties covet and traditionally monopolize. The ‘R’ in front of his name in many ways was just his ticket inside the system to break it up from within, as he withstood tepid support at best from the Republican establishment (the Bush family, most notably, kept their distance) and in-fighting among various party figures. If Trump had run on a third party ticket, he would have lost. But by hijacking a major party, he absorbed the sentiment that the Johnson-Weld ticket would have been able to tap into in any normal election cycle. This year, however, the rug was pulled out from under them.
2. Gary Johnson had a substantial lack of serious media exposure
Thinking back on Johnson’s campaign, what comes to mind is a mishmash of gaffes and odd statements, like his failure to explain the significance of Aleppo in world affairs or how he couldn't name a foreign leader that he liked. Besides a couple town hall events, the media treated the Libertarian ticket like a tangential nuisance that distracted viewers from the main story line. Gary Johnson was like a rabid fan who jumped the barricade and tried to hop into the ring while Wrestlemania's blockbuster Trump v. Clinton was under way. Credible airtime for Johnson and Weld was essentially non-existent, and this only hardened the ceiling of support that they could garner come Election Day.
3. The Libertarian Party has a lingering reputation of a fringe force with fringe ideas
Libertarians have long been saddled with a reputation of illegitimacy that extends from the tenets of the party platform to its members’ worldviews in everyday life. The chief libertarian principle of as little government as possible often correlates to the real-world beliefs that all taxation is theft, that speed limits shouldn’t exist, and that private citizens should be in charge of maintaining roads and highways. Libertarianism incorporates an expansive array of views, some of which border on the ridiculous. It is a tall order to bring them into mainstream political dialogue, especially since we have collectively become conditioned to accept a binary national political environment.
A microcosm of the libertarian struggle to shed its “too out there” scarlet letter occurred at a town hall event in June. Johnson was asked by an audience member his view on legalizing drugs. This became particularly tricky not only because in the past he had advocated for the legalization of all drugs (a common libertarian stance), but also because the woman's son had used heroin and was now confined to a wheelchair.
The result was Johnson awkwardly having to try to talk his way around the perception that he was soft on drugs while pushing for treatment centers where users could bring in their drugs to avoid overdoses. A nuanced position like this by a presidential candidate does not come off well to mainstream Americans no matter how well it is explained. Neither does the audible rejection at the party convention of the suggestion that there should be laws against selling heroin to five-year-olds. Both are telling cases of poor optics that haunt the Libertarian ticket.
4. “Libertarians are weird”
During an interview, Gary Johnson spoke to a reporter with his tongue out:
A man named “Vermin Supreme” who wears a boot for a hat ran for the Libertarian nomination - and received 18 votes.
Bill Weld vouched for Hillary Clinton, making voters wonder what he was even doing on the Libertarian ticket in the first place. (In fact, he had joined the party only a few weeks before the convention).
The examples are endless, and the implications clear: the Libertarian Party, yet again, proved itself to be, as Ian Tuttle writes, “tragically unserious.” In an election that was, on paper, the most friendly to a third party bid in twenty years, it needed to dedicate itself to making inroads with displaced voters left out in the cold by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But instead of persuading them that there was a reasonable third way, the party seemed to retreat into its cocoon of nonconformity, doubling down on its misfit-embracing, suit-with-sneakers attitude.
5. The race tightened and people voted strategically
As the election drew near, party loyalties hardened. Most Republicans who refused to back Trump throughout the summer came around; he earned 90 percent of registered Republicans. Most of Sanders voters backed Hillary; she received 89 percent of registered Democrats. Regardless of the fact that the race was reasonably close on Election Day, even if voters perceived a toss-up, then they had the impression that their ballots mattered more - especially in battleground states. They felt less inclined to support Johnson, who they knew could not win, and therefore less willing to “waste” their vote.
The American public is well-versed in the implications of the archetypal three-way scenario that has reared its head in presidential elections every few decades. As a result, Libertarians continue to suffer from a collective action problem among the electorate since no one has been convinced a Libertarian can win. People like picking winners – even when both candidates are widely despised.
6. Libertarian ideology is appealing but lacks structure for implementation
The percentage of the American public that identify as libertarians has steadily increased over the last few years. A recent Gallup survey shows that 27 percent of respondents identified as such, the highest number ever recorded. Johnson himself has said there are about 30 million Libertarians in America who just don’t know it. At the same time, those who identify as Republicans or Democrats has hit historic lows (26 percent and 29 percent, respectively, in 2015). Party polarization is increasing year by year, alienating those in the middle.
Despite these figures, Libertarian candidates have nothing to show for it when the votes are counted. Poor showings at the ballot box can be traced to a lack of party structure, organization and financial and social resources. The party is also comparatively new, having undergone various internal crises since the 1970s regarding its direction. Most of these have been borne out of a principle vs. pragmatism dilemma - unavoidable when you have a party that is built around a worldview that is extremely difficult to implement in real life. If the past is any indicator, then the party's road to resolving these woes is long.
Donald Trump had said of the Libertarian challenge he faced (which to him was no challenge at all):
Gary Johnson got one percent last time. I watched the whole situation. It was really pretty disgraceful. I think it’s a total fringe deal. He’s a fringe candidate.
This time around, Johnson received just over three percent - a net gain of three million votes, and the most in party history. But this election was supposed to be more promising for Johnson and the party as a political entity. A few months ago, it wasn't out of the question that he could rival Ross Perot’s 1992 Independent Party bid that won nearly 20 million votes. But this was a far-fetched hope. Failure, both self-imposed and from forces beyond its control, have left the Libertarian Party consigned to yet another four years of obscurity.