The Libertarian Party added considerable gravitas to its ticket when William Weld, former two-term Republican governor of Massachusetts, agreed last weekend to be the running mate of Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico and the presumptive Libertarian presidential nominee. Libertarians have not played a spoiler role in recent presidential elections—Johnson’s 2012 presidential run garnered only 1% of the national vote—but in this year’s topsy-turvy contest, nothing can be ruled out. The U.S. will not have a Libertarian president, but Libertarian voters may still determine who the next president of the United States will be.
The potential significance of the Libertarian Party has to factor in to the calculations of both of the major parties, despite the advantages the major parties enjoy in America’s predominantly two-party system. First, a Libertarian candidate will be on the ballot in 32 states, and well-organized efforts are underway to include the party on the ballot in all 50 states. Second, in this year of the disaffected voter, it might be possible for Libertarians to muscle their way into the presidential debates. The non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates makes this decision based on the standing of candidates in five yet-to-be determined national polls, with a 15% threshold for inclusion. Ross Perot was the last third-party candidate (although he had not yet founded his Reform Party) to be included in a presidential debate in 1992. But with both of the major parties nominating candidates with extraordinarily high disapproval ratings this year (Hillary Clinton 54.9%, Donald Trump 62%), there may be more opportunity for a third-party candidacy to attract the minimum required support.
Admittedly, participation in a presidential debate is one thing, and winning a presidential election is another. The prospects of a Libertarian victory in November are infinitesimal. The winner-take-all rule governing the allocation of electors in 48 of 50 states heavily stacks the deck in the Electoral College in favor of the two major parties. Perot won more popular votes (19%) than any third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt’s run as a Progressive Party candidate in 1912, and yet Perot won no electors in the Electoral College. At first glance, Libertarians might appear to pose a greater threat to Republicans, but a serious Libertarian ticket may paradoxically pose a more serious threat to Clinton than to Trump.
Johnson served as the Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003 and sought the Republican nomination for president early in 2012 before jumping to the Libertarian Party after he failed to gain any traction as a Republican candidate. Weld was a moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts, a Republican candidate for Senate when he ran against John Kerry, and a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of New York after he relocated there in 2000. Moreover, Libertarian thought played an important role in the formation of modern conservatism. Who would be better suited to draw disaffected Republicans to the Libertarian banner than two former Republican officeholders? In a recent New York Times article, Maggie Haberman and Thomas Kaplan sensibly speculate that “Mr. Weld could appeal to some disaffected Republicans.”
The threat to Trump posed by a serious Libertarian ticket cannot be dismissed, but the threat to Clinton may be more substantial. Libertarian principles have disproportionate appeal to younger voters. Ron Paul was the Libertarian Party candidate in 1988 before running for the Republican nomination in both 2008 and 2012 on a Libertarian platform. In 2012, Paul managed to finish third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire before the Republican presidential campaign winnowed the field to a contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Paul overwhelming won the youth vote. In Iowa, he won 50% of 18 to 24-year-olds, 45% of 25 to 29-year-olds, and 34% of 30 to 39-year-olds. Similarly, in New Hampshire, he won 46% of the 18-to-24-year-old cohort, and 35% of the 30-to-39-year-old cohort. Libertarian positions on social issues like gay marriage or legalizing marijuana are particularly popular among young voters.
Today, young voters are disproportionately Bernie Sanders supporters. In the Democratic primary, Clinton has struggled to overcome a generational divide. The divide emerged in Iowa (where young voters chose Sanders over Clinton by a margin of six to one), and has persisted throughout the nomination process. The million-dollar question of presidential politics is: Where will these Sanders voters go when Clinton secures the Democratic nomination? White, blue-collar, less-educated Sanders voters may gravitate to Trump. His avowed strategy is to attract Reagan Democrats and make Rust Belt states electorally competitive. If younger voters were to gravitate to the Libertarian party rather than acquiesce in the Clinton nomination, then the libertarians could throw the election to Trump. Michael Bloomberg decided to forgo an independent third-party run for fear that he would take more votes from Clinton and give the presidency to Trump. Weld may now play the role that Bloomberg refused to play.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.