How the Libertarian Party Failed “Big League” in the 2016 Presidential Election
BY: MATT MATISZ, CONTRIBUTOR
According to Gallup, that is the number of Americans who believed that a third major party was needed in the 2016 election cycle. With frustration with both major parties at all time highs, voters were looking for something different. Then, Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party. His brash and unfiltered brand of populism appealed to working-class voters who felt forgotten and left behind by the Washington establishment and the mainstream media. This was the same establishment that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had been a part of for the majority of her career. A coalition of anger and frustration fused together and elected him the 45th President of the United States on November 8th. However, Trump’s rhetoric also brought endorsements from white supremacists, and he alienated many voters after a tape resurfaced from 2005 where he made some offensive comments about women to Access Hollywood host, Billy Bush.
On the left side of the aisle, the situation wasn’t much better. Leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee showed collusion between Donna Brazile, the acting chair of the DNC, and the Hillary Clinton campaign, in which Brazile leaked debate questions to the Clinton campaign. Clinton also had issues with her honesty amid an investigation by the FBI into a private email server she used while Secretary of State, as well as fallout from alleged “pay for play” activity between the Clinton Foundation and foreign governments. As the election cycle moved forward, the American people watched an ugly mix of personal attacks and mudslinging take center stage, while the issues that directly affected them were sidelined. This led many Americans to look to the smaller, minor parties for representation, particularly the Libertarian Party.
Founded in 1971 in Colorado, the Libertarian Party believes in non-interventionism, capitalism, drug legalization, and the belief in “maximum freedom and minimum government”. In recent years, politicians like Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and Justin Amash have brought Libertarian beliefs to the forefront. In 2016, the Libertarian Party selected the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, and the former governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, as its nominees for president and vice-president. Johnson and Weld were both former two-term Republican governors, elected and reelected in traditionally Democratic states. Many news outlets, such as The Daily Beast, believed that they could bring together disenfranchised Republicans and Democrats. Gov. Johnson stated early on that he had a plan to win the presidency. However, this plan soon became to win one state, then it became to get into the debates, and then it became to reach 5% nationally. As the results were declared in the early hours of November 9th, the Johnson/Weld ticket had received only 3.3% of the popular vote. So, in an election year where the chance was ripe for a third-party to break the duopoly, and two candidates possessed the credentials to do it, what went wrong?
A Divided Party
Division was a theme which defined the 2016 election. Whether it was Trump and his supporters vs. the #NeverTrump movement in the Republican Party, Bernie Sanders against the Clintons in the Democratic primaries, or Trump facing Clinton in the general election, division always found a way into the political landscape. Even in the Libertarian Party, which was seeking its first major opportunity in the national spotlight, division was rampant. At the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando, Florida, protests broke out on the floor against Weld’s nomination to be Vice President. Weld had only joined the party a few weeks before the convention, and was criticized by long-time Libertarians as being an “also-ran” Republican who was not a true Libertarian. The split in the party was further amplified when the runner-up for the Party’s nomination for President, Austin Petersen, a media producer and activist, took to the stage and gave a concession speech where he endorsed Johnson, but refused to support Weld. His refusal to compromise his beliefs earned him a standing ovation from the delegates. While the internal fighting within the Libertarian Party likely played a role in denying the ticket votes, the main issue that most analysts point to was the visible lack of knowledge on foreign policy and world affairs.
Public Gaffes on Foreign Policy
Both governors did countless television interviews to get their message out to the American people, but one interview in particular ended up defining the campaign. In early September, Johnson went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” for what was supposed to be a pretty routine interview. Panelist Mike Barnicle asked him a question what he would do about the human rights crisis in Aleppo, Syria. Now, the Syrian civil war has been going on for around five years, and most people are aware of the horrific conditions in the major cities. Johnson sat there and stared blankly for a few seconds, before responding, “And what is Aleppo?”. Barnicle and the panel (like most people) were left stunned and confused that a major candidate for the most powerful job in the world lacked basic knowledge on an ongoing war. To his credit, when Barnicle explained Aleppo and its central role in the war, Johnson gave a detailed answer on his opposition to regime change and America’s involvement in the region. He also took responsibility for his error and took the blame upon himself, unlike some of the other candidates. However, a few weeks later, in an MSNBC town hall hosted by Chris Matthews, he was asked to name a foreign leader he admired, and he stated he “admired the former president of Mexico,” Vincente Fox, but could not remember the name. When Matthews pressed him, Johnson said he was “having an Aleppo moment”. Weld, although he provided a clear speaking voice, was also at fault. Right before Election Day, Weld went on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC and said “I’m here vouching for Mrs. Clinton”. This only heightened the concerns of the Libertarians who were skeptical of Weld’s true intentions. This incident, along with the “Aleppo moments” would follow Johnson throughout the final stretch of the campaign and, as falling poll numbers showed, took valuable votes away from him.
What Happens Next?
“Maximum freedom and minimal government”. Sounds simple right? Well, the platform of the Libertarian Party is more complex than people think. It advocates the full legalization of marijuana, the least intervention possible in world affairs, a woman’s right to choose, the abolition of the Federal Reserve, laissez-faire capitalism, and the freedom for people to make their own decisions in their own lives, as long as they don’t adversely affect others. People of all different political perspectives call the Libertarian Party home, from anarchists to centrists. The large variation of views in the Party can cause infighting and disagreements, but for the large part, it contributes to a level of debate and discussion that is not seen in the other major parties, especially in this election year. While the Johnson/Weld ticket ended up falling below expectations, they still received more votes than all other Libertarian tickets combined, which is promising for the growth of its ideals. Now, the Libertarian Party must look ahead to 2020. To have a shot at the Presidency, they must focus on getting more down-ballot candidates elected, selecting qualified and knowledgeable candidates for each office, and getting millennials and Generation Z engaged in the liberty movement, while never compromising their core ideology. The United States could use a third voice in politics, but after this election, the Libertarian Party should look in the mirror, learn from their mistakes, and figure out how to be that voice for the 57% of Americans who feel left behind.