Lessons of Gary Johnson’s Presidential Campaign

Although we don’t yet have absolutely final totals, it looks like Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico, got just under 1% of the popular vote. This is the best total for a libertarian candidate since 1980, when the party’s nominee got only slightly more than Johnson. I was wrong to predict that he would do only a little better than Bob Barr in 2008. In fact, Johnson more than doubled Barr’s percentage of the vote. That’s a testament to Johnson’s public appeal. That said, I still think I was right in my broader critique of Johnson’s candidacy and the Libertarian Party in general: that it isn’t an effective way to promote the libertarian cause.

Although Johnson did much better than any other LP nominee in decades, there’s no evidence that it converted any significant number of people to libertarianism or attracted substantial new public attention to libertarian ideas. I watched four or five hours of election coverage on several different networks on election night (mostly CNN, Fox, and NBC). I didn’t hear Johnson’s name or the Libertarian Party’s mentioned even once. I’m sure if you scour the transcripts of all the network coverage that day, you can probably find a few references to Johnson somewhere. But, as far as the media was concerned, his campaign barely existed. You can blame this on media bias, ideological prejudice, manipulation by the major parties, and other nefarious forces. But the hard reality is that the media pays little or no attention to third party candidates unless the nominee is a famous celebrity (Ralph Nader), or can spend gargantuan amounts of his own money (Ross Perot), or was a big-time major party politician to an even greater extent than Johnson (e.g. – George Wallace in 1968). And that’s just one of many obstacles to developing an effective third party in the US political system, which is structurally tilted in favor of the two biggest parties. I describe some others in my postmortem on the LP’s 2008 campaign.

Given these realities and the failure of the LP to have an effective impact throughout its forty-year history, libertarians would be better advised to advance our cause by other means. Johnson himself might have done better if he had run for New Mexico’s open senate seat as a Republican. I can understand his and other libertarians’ frustration with the Democrats and the GOP, including with regard to the shabby treatment that Johnson got when he ran for the Republican nomination. But the misdeeds of the major parties don’t change the reality that the LP is a poor vehicle for promoting libertarianism. Working to make the major parties more libertarian from within is a much better strategy. Such groups as the Religious Right, labor unionists, gun rights advocates, civil rights activists, and feminists all considered third parties at various times, but ultimately realized they would do better to work within the major ones. The lessons of their experience apply to us.

Nick Gillespie argues otherwise in this post. Much of what he says about the shortcomings of the major parties is true. But notice that he doesn’t provide any evidence that the LP has been effective in the past, or is likely to become so in the future.

This is not to say that all libertarians should drop everything and become Democratic or GOP activists. Party politics is far from the only way to promote libertarianism. As I have emphasized in earlier posts on this subject (e.g. here and here), libertarians have also sometimes had success in working to change public and elite opinion in other ways. If you don’t like partisan politics, you can still promote liberty by doing scholarship, blogging, policy analysis, public interest litigation, engaging in activism on specific issues such as drug legalization, or just simply working to persuade your friends and relatives that the nation would be better off with a smaller government. And that’s far from an exhaustive list. The point is not that major party politics is the only way to be effective, but that third party politics is usually ineffective. It’s long past time that libertarians fully internalized that lesson. Most in fact already have. But the LP does still include some capable libertarian leaders, activists, and donors. These people are well-intentioned and in many ways admirable. But their efforts would have a bigger payoff if directed elsewhere. Compared with our liberal and conservative rivals, we have only very limited resources. We can’t afford to squander them on political dead ends.

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