On January 20, barring any extraordinary circumstances, 2016 Republican candidate Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. Needless to say, this means that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson will not be inaugurated. There are a multitude of reasons for this, some of which are common to all third-party candidates, some of which affect the Libertarian Party in particular, and some of which are specific to the Johnson himself. Let us examine all of them in that order and see why Johnson not only lost, but failed to earn 5 percent of the vote against two of the least popular major-party candidates ever to seek the Presidency.
I. All Third Parties
a. Duverger’s Law
Duverger’s Law holds that plurality-rule elections (such as first past the post) structured within single-member districts tend to favor a two-party system. Duverger suggests two reasons for this; some smaller parties ally together to make a stronger party, and other smaller parties fail because voters abandon them. A purely statistical restrictive feature is that because the system rewards only the winner in each district with political power, a party which consistently loses will never gain political power, even if it receives a sizable minority of votes. There is also the matter of polarization; if a large group of voters support a candidate who is strongly opposed by another large group of voters, defeating that candidate is easier if they do not split their votes among multiple candidates. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology suggests a possible genetic basis for a left-right two-party political system.
b. Electoral College
The American system for electing presidents contains an additional barrier to third parties: the Electoral College. Rather than a direct popular vote, the winner of the popular vote in each state gains a number of electors which depends on the population of that state. This amplifies the effect of Duverger’s Law by making all losing votes in each state worthless for gaining the Presidency. This effect was seen in the 1992 election, when Ross Perot earned 18.9 percent of the national popular vote but failed to earn any electoral votes, as he did not come in first place in any state. This result has made people in recent elections more likely to view third-party campaigns as a wasted effort. Another historical example is the 1912 election, in which Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy caused Woodrow Wilson to win far more electoral votes than his popular vote percentage would suggest.
c. Media Coverage
If a candidate is unlikely to achieve political power, then it makes little sense for the media to devote significant airtime to covering that candidate’s campaign, activities, and policy positions. Diverting media to a third-party campaign might also incur the wrath of the major parties, who could view such a move as a conspiracy between the media and the third party to upset the established order and respond with censorship measures. With the advent of the Internet and social media, this barrier is breaking down, but it is not yet gone.
Part of the purpose of funding a political campaign is quid pro quo; in other words, wealthy donors expect something in return for their patronage. In fact, studies show that there is no better return on investment for a corporation’s capital resources than to bribe politicians, which can generally only be done legally by funding their campaigns or their SuperPACs. If a candidate and/or party is unlikely to achieve political power, then funding them is a waste of capital. Furthermore, funding them may invite a backlash from one’s fellow oligarchs, who do not wish to see the system that benefits them be upended by a new political force.
e. Ballot Access
Like most groups which manage to consolidate power, the Republicans and Democrats abuse it. Regardless of whatever disagreements they have, they routinely agree that no other party should gain a foothold in the institutions of power and act in concert accordingly. The most common way of doing this is to pass ballot access laws which greatly favor the two major parties. This is done to burden third parties with expensive and time-consuming efforts to gain thousands of petition signatures in order to gain or keep ballot access. The third parties which cannot succeed in this are eliminated from the ballot and thus eliminated from political contention. Those which do succeed are greatly weakened by the loss of effort, money, and time which could have been spent campaigning for office if there were not such onerous requirements for ballot access.
f. Debate Access
Just as the establishment media is loathe to devote coverage to alternative parties for the reasons discussed above, they also collude with the major parties to deny access to televised general election debates. Since the 1988 election, the Republicans and Democrats have used the Commission on Presidential Debates that they created to effectively silence third-party candidates in general election debates (with the exception of Perot in 1992, but this was only because both major-party candidates believed that Perot’s presence was in their self-interest). This creates the appearance in the minds of voters that the two major-party candidates are the only legitimate choices.
II. The Libertarian Party
a. Inherent Contradiction
Libertarianism is a philosophical position on what constitutes the acceptable use of force. It says that initiating the use of force is never acceptable but using force to defend against an initiator of force is always acceptable. Taken to its logical conclusion, libertarianism requires anarchy and views the state as an institution of violent criminality. This is because the state is a group of people who claim and exercise a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area.
With this in mind, the Libertarian Party contains an inherent contradiction, in that it is a political party devoted to anti-politics, an attempt to use the current system in order to destroy it. In the words of Christopher Cantwell,
“Any libertarian who tells you he is trying to win an election is either lying to you about trying to win the election, lying to us about being a libertarian, or terribly misinformed. As far as we’re concerned, elections are a bad thing. We’re trying to end them, not win them.
The nature of the State is to make false promises to bait support from the people it victimizes. They promise to protect you from boogeymen; they promise to solve your economic problems; they promise to carry out the will of your deity. We see this as completely ridiculous; we know it will fail, and we know that most people are stupid enough to swallow it hook, line, and sinker, so we cannot compete with it in a popular vote.
Libertarians are anarchists, whether they realize it or not. Even the ones who are delusional enough to think that they are going to get elected and restore the bloody republic are little more than useful idiots who are repeating anarchist propaganda for us through channels normally reserved for government. The goal is not to win your elections; the goal is to turn a large enough minority against the legitimacy of the State as to make its continued function impossible.”
Though the Libertarian Party has other purposes, such as social networking and educating people about libertarian philosophy, it is hampered in a way that other, non-libertarian third parties are not by its contradictory nature.
b. Principles Over Party
The Libertarian Party brands itself as the Party of Principle, though this is questionable when one considers the candidates who run under its banner. To the extent that this is true, however, it can harm the party’s election results. A principled libertarian will reject the political quid pro quo bribery that allows the major parties to fund their campaigns and maintain their power, and this puts one at a structural disadvantage to the political establishment. As Nick Land explains,
“Since winning elections is overwhelmingly a matter of vote buying, and society’s informational organs (education and media) are no more resistant to bribery than the electorate, a thrifty politician is simply an incompetent politician, and the democratic variant of Darwinism quickly eliminates such misfits from the gene pool. …It is a structural inevitability that the libertarian voice is drowned out in democracy.”
c. Lack of Unity
If an insufficiently libertarian candidate wins the party’s nomination, LP voters are more likely than voters of other party affiliations to support another party’s candidate. In 2016, this manifested in the defection of many libertarians to the Trump campaign (and a small handful to the other campaigns), as well as the quixotic write-in campaign of failed Libertarian candidate Darryl Perry. This results in the LP having less of an impact than it would if its voters came home after a bitter primary to the same extent that voters for the two major parties do. A lack of unity in an already small party is a death sentence for its political influence.
d. Bad Presentation
From the standpoint of a philosophical libertarian, the 2016 Libertarian National Convention was a raging dumpster fire. Candidates voiced support for all sorts of anti-libertarian ideas, the least libertarian candidates for President and Vice President were nominated, a candidate for party chair performed a striptease at the convention podium, and failed presidential candidate John McAfee thought it wise to attack the core demographic of libertarianism. At a time when the Libertarian Party most needed itself to be taken seriously by the American people, the convention did nothing to help the image of libertarianism while doing much to pollute its message and tarnish its image in the minds of voters.
After the convention, the LP spread misinformation concerning what a vote for Johnson could actually accomplish. It turns out that contrary to LP propaganda, 5 percent of the national popular vote does next to nothing for ballot access because ballot access is a state-level issue. The only such law is found in Georgia, but it requires 20 percent of the national popular vote for automatic ballot access in the next election. Lying to potential voters about the impact that they will have for one’s cause is not a recipe for success.
III. Johnson/Weld 2016
a. Lack of Libertarianism
As mentioned above, Gary Johnson was the least libertarian of the five candidates featured in the debate at the convention. Johnson repeated the tired falsehood that libertarianism is social liberalism combined with economic conservatism, supported fixing Social Security rather than phasing it out, claimed that market forces had bankrupted coal companies rather than government regulations, supported for a consumption tax (which drew a round of boos from the audience), advocated regional banks rather than a free market in currency, declined to condemn the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, had no answer as to whether American involvement in the World Wars was justified, supported government involvement in marriage, favored the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which drew a round of boos from the audience due to parts which violate private property rights and freedom of association), and supported government-issued driver’s licenses (which drew several rounds of boos from the audience). Johnson also has a history of supporting military intervention against Joseph Kony, saying that Jews should be forced to do business with Nazis, wanting to ban Muslim women from wearing burqas, and growing state government spending as governor. William Weld, Johnson’s running mate, was even worse; he was the least libertarian of the four vice presidential contenders by a mile. Weld has a history of supporting affirmative action, eminent domain, environmental regulations, gun control, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, and the presidential candidacy of John Kasich. There was nothing to attract anyone who was looking for a principled libertarian message, and much to repel them.
b. Lack of Knowledge
In a September 8 interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mike Barnicle asked Johnson about Aleppo. Johnson completely blanked out on the issue. At the time, he was hovering around 9 percent in the polls and needed to reach 15 percent to gain access to the debates. This gaffe marked the beginning of his gradual decline from 8.8 percent on September 7 to the 3.3 percent of the vote he received on November 8. Attempts were made to defend his gaffe by claiming that Johnson could not bomb other countries like major-party presidents do if he did not know about them, but these rightly rang hollow. A few weeks later, Johnson was asked to name a foreign leader that he admires and was unable to name anyone. While a philosophical libertarian could say that all heads of state are presiding over criminal organizations and are thus unworthy of admiration, Johnson did not do this and attempts by his supporters to spin his gaffe in that fashion were risible at best. It is one thing to withdraw from foreign entanglements, but quite another to have no idea what is happening in the world.
c. Lack of Personal Growth
Johnson first ran for President in 2012 as a Republican, then switched parties to gain the Libertarian nomination. As the 2012 campaign season wore on, Johnson improved in his ability to speak publicly and articulate libertarian ideas, though he still made some significant errors. Unfortunately, this trajectory did not continue. Four years is a long time in which to gain knowledge and grow as a person, but Johnson did not noticeably do either during this time. If anything, his mental faculties appear to have regressed between his 2012 campaign and his 2016 campaign.
d. Bad Presentation
Not only did Johnson gaffe badly on multiple occasions, but his presentation was downright weird at times. In an interview with NBC’s Kasie Hunt, Johnson stuck out his tongue and spoke almost incoherently. His intention was to make a point about debate access and how bad the major-party candidates were, but it looked desperate, forced, and strange. He appeared to be stoned in other media appearances, despite claiming that he had stopped using marijuana for the campaign.
e. Lack of Preparation and Study
A lack of knowledge and personal growth can only be properly addressed by preparation and study. Johnson and those around him needed to make sure that he was learning everything that he would need to know in order to be an effective presidential candidate on par with the major-party candidates. Clearly, this did not happen.
f. Inactivity Between Elections
A person who intends to run as a third-party candidate in multiple election cycles needs to be involved with the party’s activities in the intervening years. As the most public face of the organization, no one else has more power to bring in donors, encourage activists, and invite new people to the party than the party’s presidential candidate. But Johnson was nowhere to be found between the end of his 2012 campaign and the beginning of his 2016 campaign, having retreated into the private sector to run a marijuana company (which may help to explain the previous points in more ways than one). Johnson has similarly fallen off the face of the political landscape now that the 2016 campaign is over, which may harm the party’s outreach efforts leading up to the 2020 campaign.
g. Lack of Charisma
Johnson seems to lack the ability to take over a room in the way that successful presidential candidates do. Instead, he is usually soft-spoken and nervous, which causes his statements to lose some of their gravitas and his barbs to lose some of their sting. When he does raise his voice, it comes across not as righteous indignation but as a simple loss of temperament. While this might be good for countering the imperial Presidency after taking office, it is counterproductive for getting there.
h. Lack of Political Awareness
Much like Rand Paul during his campaign, Johnson seemed completely oblivious to what was happening in middle America. Whether by the statism indoctrinated into the voting public or by the political autism and cuckoldry that commonly manifest in mainstream libertarians, the libertarian moment passed and the right-wing populist moment came. The Libertarian Party found itself just as unprepared for this as did the Democrats and the establishment Republicans. For this reason (and the previous reason), Johnson was incapable of effectively countering Trump.
i. Unscrupulous Spending/Ron Neilson
The Libertarian Party and its candidates never have the resources of a major-party campaign. It is therefore of the utmost importance to wisely use the limited amount of funds available. The Johnson campaign failed to do this, spending an inordinate amount on campaign consulting services while still owing nearly $2 million from his 2012 campaign. If the campaign had received a good return on its investment into Ron Neilson’s consulting firm, then this might not be so bad. But given all of the above issues which a consulting firm might be expected to notice, bring to a candidate’s attention, and attempt to resolve, this was clearly not the case.
j. Lack of Loyalty
Even if all of the above issues did not exist, it is difficult to mount a successful presidential campaign when it is being torpedoed by no less than the bottom half of the ticket. Bill Weld proved that he is not only anti-libertarian on the issues, but a traitor to the Libertarian Party. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on November 1, Weld said,
“Well I’m here vouching for Mrs. Clinton and I think it’s high time somebody did, and I’m doing it based on my personal experience with her and I think she deserves to have people vouch for her other than members of the Democratic National Committee, so I’m here to do that.”
At a press conference on November 7, the following exchange occurred:
Press: Between Clinton and Trump would you say ‘vote for Hillary Clinton?’
Weld: “Absolutely! I’ve sort of said that from day 1… But I’m saying, you know, if you can see your way clear to vote the party in the middle, that would be the Libertarians, that’s our first choice.”
Weld then said,
“We want people to vote Libertarian, but I understand in very close swing states there may be different dynamics at play, but in places like Massachusetts, where Mrs. Clinton is way, way, ahead, I would encourage everybody to vote Libertarian.”
Given the history of third-party candidacies, this is exactly the wrong approach. Third parties advance their causes by playing spoiler, thus forcing the major parties to either adopt their platforms or face the threat of being replaced in the way that the Republicans replaced the Whigs.
Gary Johnson is not going to be President, and the 20 reasons discussed above show that there was never any doubt of this by any competent observer. In future elections, this should be a thorough guide for the Libertarian Party concerning what not to do. But because Johnson gained a record vote total and vote percentage for the LP and libertarians tend to be no better than other people at recognizing the need to contemplate counterfactuals rather than to look only at what happened in this timeline, these lessons will likely remain unlearned and the LP will continue to wander in the wilderness.