“You ARE libertarian. Live free,” reads the wall behind Gary Johnson’s podium in Reynold’s Theater. Truthfully, under your cloak of political indifference, past the narrow political constructs of left and right, you are a Libertarian, the static letters on the white screen seem to be saying.
Despite his assertiveness, Johnson and his fellow Libertarians running for office have been shut out of the mainstream political establishment and forced to work with more modest resources, leaving them almost no hope of being elected next month. Our electoral system is frustratingly good at upholding a self-enforcing two-party political system, yet the irrational optimism of the Libertarian agenda has always provoked a kind of awestruck pity in the politically apathetic. Johnson, this year’s Libertarian presidential nominee, does not seem to be fazed by the amount of persuading he has left. To the contrary, his campaign and the smaller campaigns of his peers in North Carolina certainly aren’t lacking in cheery, idealistic denial.
“My message is a message that needs to be heard and it needs to be pursued,” Johnson maintained in a June NPR interview. All political candidates espouse this kind of political altruism to at least some degree, but Johnson’s is particularly believable because he appears so unlikely to reap any electoral reward.
Perhaps the counterfactual idealism of Libertarians is what makes them particularly endearing to college students. Johnson certainly enjoyed a positive Blue Devil reception while making a 40-college stop with his vice presidential candidate, Jim Gray. The September talk could more accurately have been described as a restrained pep-rally. The more enthusiastic attendees emphatically pumped “Gary Johnson 2012” posters at the end of his every sentence, as if to punctuate his speech. What Johnson had to say to his poster-pumpers was actually quite awful—but the audience ate it up anyway. “You guys are all getting screwed,” he intoned. Between taxes, health care and pension college students are almost certainly going to be crushed by school, mortgage and national debt in years to come. Unless we vote for him, of course. In many ways, the growing popularity of the Libertarian party, which is the largest and fastest growing third party, has much to do with the perceived ineptness of the current administration. Libertarianism is not a new political ideology, however. For some, a vote for the Libertarian party is a vote in opposition rather than a vote in confidence.
“People are definitely more receptive. They’re fed up,” acknowledged Richard Evey, a Libertarian candidate for one of two North Carolina Senate seats open for election this year. People, he enthusiastically said, have been actually voluntarily coming up to him and asking for more information—a trend that Evey hasn’t enjoyed in his previous campaigns for the same seat.
When I called Libertarian N.C. gubernatorial candidate Barbara Howe for an interview, she was on her way back from completing a 5K in the tiny county of Jones, having sworn to run the equivalent of three miles in every state county before the election. These types of theatrics are not uncommon for Libertarian candidates—Howe recounted how four years earlier, her Libertarian predecessor, Michael Munger, dove into the ocean with pneumonia in November for the sake of media attention. “This is the sort of thing that really the only way a Libertarian, or really any third party candidate, can get any attention,” Munger solemnly declared before walking calmly into the waves.
Indeed, the set political establishment has effectively ignored the Libertarian party. “The hardest thing is sometimes they don’t take you seriously,” Howe breathlessly informed me after pulling over in heavy traffic while juggling our interview. Republicans and Democrats haven’t seemed to pretend to include their Libertarian peers in the electoral process. On campus, Duke Libertarian activities are invisible, squeezed out by the beefedup and vocal ranks of Duke Democrats and Duke College Republicans. One gets the distinct sense that both left and right are happy ignoring their misfit Libertarian cousins. Sophomore David Winegar, president of Duke Democrats, only gave me the following statement after hemming and hawing on his stance about this year’s Libertarian candidates: “We are fully behind Barack Obama and his policies.”
Junior Taylor Imperiale, chair of Duke College Republicans, was more understanding but equally dismissive.
“A 2 or 3 percent vote total isn’t going to change how the world views libertarianism... They just serve to make it more difficult for one of the [major] candidates to win. Realize that in some sense a vote for Johnson is a wasted vote,” Imperiale said. Voters who supported Johnson’s platform would find most of their expectations met by Mitt Romney anyways, he added. Libertarians have vocally disagreed.
“Libertarianism is all about small government, et cetera, so everyone can live the way they choose,” Howe commented. But this emphasis on a small government has created a relatively small following for Howe’s party. In an attempt to increase their base of support, however, Libertarians have targeted younger generations with their message. In addition to filing an anti-trust case in federal court for being excluded from the national debates, Johnson has made a special effort to reach out to students, as is evident from his recent college tour.
“Given our limited resources, we certainly have focused much more on young people than any other demographic,” noted junior Michael Elgart, co-president of Duke Libertarians.
On a similar note, Duke political science professor Michael Gillespie commented that college students are a natural target audience for the Libertarian Party. “Where else are they going to find the people interested in them?” Gillespie does recognize some of the merits of the Libertarian platform, however. “The more money government makes available, the more people try to capture some of those rents,” he said, adding that people can use that money to pad their own pockets, engendering corruption and inefficiency.
And the premise of a self-ordering system of free choice is appealing. Johnson’s platform—fiscal conservatism and absolute protection of civil liberties—attracts potential voters who value, for example, both deficit reduction and the affirmation of gay marriage. “I’m stronger than Obama when it comes to civil liberties, and I’m going to make the claim that I’m stronger than Romney when it comes to dollars and cents,” Johnson boasted in the interview, a claim which will either win voters by capturing the best of both worlds or woo neither side with its odd mixture of social liberalism and conservative economics.
That combination of ideologies may be perfectly suited toward college students, however. Elgart told me his own reasons for choosing his party: “Libertarianism is very popular amongst young people, relatively speaking. There are much fewer social conservatives in the younger generation than older voters, and many [young people] have come to realize that small government and social conservatism don’t actually overlap as much as Republicans believe.” For idealistic young voters who long despaired of finding the perfect political fit and could not stomach Democratic economic liberalism and Republican social conservatism, Libertarianism is a compelling third option. On-campus mobilization for Libertarian candidates has been lackluster, however. Elgart notes the biggest challenge is publicity.
“Once people hear about us, they are very excited to get involved,” he said.
Although Libertarians’ rebel status affords them brownie points with disaffected voters, it also cuts them off from much of the lifeblood of political campaigns: money. Unlike his Democratic and Republican opponents, Johnson’s financial war chest runs in the thousands of dollars rather than in the millions. He successfully qualified for matching funds from the Federal Election Commission back in May, providing at least $100,000 of funding to Johnson’s campaign. This would have been peanuts to the presidential frontrunners. President Barack Obama, for example, raised $126 million in September. Cash flow shortage is certainly not a new problem for third party candidates. Munger, a political science professor at Duke, noted that he had less than $30,000 to spend on his campaign, as compared to the eventual victor, Beverly Perdue, who spent $17 million in total. Evey, the Senatorial candidate, admitted his campaign is largely a self-funded “one-man operation,” while his opponent has spent nearly $100,000 to contest for the seat.
“Here’s the problem with running as a Libertarian,” explained Evey. “Money.” Exacerbating their financial paucity is the way our political institutions have been set up to prevent third-party candidacies. All third-party woes effectively stem from the way American electoral rules have been structured. To weed out any old group from putting forth a candidate, many states have stringent requirements for even appearing on the ballot. North Carolina’s electoral laws are notoriously draconian; in order to appear on the ballot, third parties must have received at least 2 percent of the vote in the previous election. Prior to Munger’s gubernatorial campaign that garnered 2.7 percent of votes, Libertarians had spent $2 million to get on the ballot eight separate times—“pouring resources down the rathole,” as Munger more colorfully described. This left almost nothing to fund its candidates once achieving hard-won ballot access.
Then there is the problem of receiving national coverage and attention. Johnson has experienced routine exclusion from both Republican and Democratic debates.
“They said that I had to be at 2 percent in A, B, and C polls. I wasn’t in A, B, and C polls. So how do you get into the debate if your name is not even an option in the poll?” Johnson half-complained, with laugh tinged with frustration, and understandably so. Johnson eventually filed a lawsuit, claiming his exclusion from the presidential debates was a violation of anti-trust regulation. Johnson is currently polling at 5 to 6 percent, though these numbers will probably be higher than the actual voter tally, as many prospective voters who participate in polls decline to “waste” a vote on a third-party candidate on the day of the election. More pragmatic Libertarians, however, urge a “wasted” third-party vote for a candidate one actually supports rather than throwing away a vote on a candidate who will anyway.
In addition to the larger visibility and financial issues facing Libertarian candidates, the country’s winner-take-all political system quickly snuffs out smaller, third-party candidates. This has not stopped the dogged North Carolinian Libertarian resistance from running for office, however. In addition to Howe’s campaign for governor, 13 other intrepid Libertarians are running for state positions. North Carolina is not known to be a particularly encouraging environment for Libertarians, who tend to be strongest in the western part of the country, especially among more rural areas such as Montana, California and Wyoming.
But as far as underdogs go, Libertarians are beating their competition. Of all the third party presidential candidates, Johnson is on the ballot in the most states—47 states and the District of Columbia. With 17,000 registered Libertarians in North Carolina, the party is the largest third party in the state—though Democrats and Republicans each have more than 2 million registered voters, to keep things in perspective. Even Johnson, the most well-known face of the Libertarian pack, faces only 35 percent name recognition among voters.
Still, Libertarians remain upbeat. Johnson rallies like the triathlon athlete that he is can. “A wasted vote would be voting for someone you don’t believe in,” he maintained. A bigger problem Johnson faces may be convincing voters to cast a ballot for a candidate they might not even recognize.