I’ll preface this by saying that I am decidedly NOT a libertarian myself. So, I am by no means an expert or insider on the Libertarian Party or its supporters, and this piece is not an endorsement. I am merely an observer. But as an observer, I think there’s a real possibility the Libertarian Party could play a role in reshaping the political conversation during this election.
For those unfamiliar with libertarianism, the short version is that it supports limited government and personal freedom. Some in the movement take that to mean practically no government, favoring, for instance, shutting down or privatizing all government agencies and public services. However, Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Gary Johnson (a former Republican governor of New Mexico) is currently describing it much more palatably as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”
In the past, the Libertarian Party hasn’t been much more successful than your average third party, gaining a few seats in local governments but barely making a peep on the national stage (Johnson got just short of 1 percent of the Presidential vote in 2012, and that was the party's best showing ever). But if you’ve watched any of this Presidential campaign, you know that this is not like other election years.
Donald Trump has proven to be a divisive figure within the Republican Party. Several longtime Republican lawmakers and officials refuse to support him, and there’s apparently an effort to change the rules at the party’s convention next month to prevent him from gaining the nomination. Should those efforts fail, it’s not too much of a stretch to say a significant amount of Republican voters won’t vote for him, either.
If those voters just don’t vote at all, the Republican Party can just write it off as a fluke election because of Trump. But if they were to all vote for another party, that could send a message that the GOP would be foolish to ignore.
What message might that be? Well, if the appeal of libertarianism is that it’s “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” then, perhaps, be socially liberal. Meaning, be inclusive, instead of appealing to the anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant crowd. Also, both libertarians and conservative Republicans claim to be for small government, but for libertarians, that also means towards things Republicans generally support, like military interventionism and the war on drugs.
Now, this scenario makes a few big assumptions. The one that Trump will turn off a good amount of potential voters doesn’t seem too farfetched. Those voters rallying around Johnson, however, assumes that there is a sizable contingent of Republican voters who are, in fact, much more libertarian-leaning than their party leaders. I think there is. Maybe not the completely pure libertarianism that's against nearly all forms of government, but certainly the more inclusive, less militaristic and authoritarian variety.
Maybe my assumptions about what will happen and what it’ll mean are wrong (again, I’m no expert). Still, Nate Silver, arguably the best name in polling today, suggested this weekend that Johnson could get a notable percentage of the vote in several states (including Indiana). So, the Libertarian Party’s performance is something to watch this year.