With the insiders on the outs and the two major parties apparently on track to nominate candidates with unusually high negatives, a third lane to the White House may be opening up.
Gary Johnson, who is seeking the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, argues that this cycle is primed for Libertarians to break through, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in line to be the Republican and Democratic nominees and anti-establishment fervor running high in both parties.
Long deemed the third party in a government based on a two-party system, Libertarians are encouraged by polling showing Mr. Johnson garnering double-digit support in a three-way match-up with Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton.
“If that’s the table that gets set and Libertarians don’t do extraordinarily well, when are they ever going to do well?” Mr. Johnson, a former two-term New Mexico governor, said in an interview with The Washington Times.
That argument gained new power with a Monmouth University poll March 24 that gave Mr. Johnson 11 percent in a theoretical three-way race, behind Mrs. Clinton at 42 percent and Mr. Trump at 34 percent. Businessman Ross Perot got nearly 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential race against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — the best showing by a third-party presidential candidate in the past 100 years.
Mr. Johnson sought the GOP’s nomination in 2012, but withdrew when he failed to make the stage for most of the debates and ran instead as a Libertarian, winning the free-market, limited-government party’s nomination and appearing on the ballot. He won about 1 percent of the popular vote, including nearly 3 percent of the popular vote in Montana and over 2 percent in Alaska and Wyoming.
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This year, he says, will be different, with Republicans and Democrats tilting further toward their extremes, leaving a difficult choice for many middle-of-the-road voters.
“I’ve always maintained that I think the majority of the people in this country are libertarian — they just don’t know it,” he said. “Speaking with a broad-brush stroke, that’s being fiscally conservative and socially liberal. … I think most people fall in that category.”
Nicholas Sarwark, who chairs the Libertarian Party, is counting on those voters to finally tire of the choices the GOP and Democrats offer.
“The people who have been Republicans for decades and decades [and] true-blue establishment Republicans feel like they’ve been betrayed by a populist that has no moral center,” Mr. Sarwark said. “And on the Democratic side, the serious progressive activists who actually don’t want to have foreign wars and don’t want to keep locking people up for what they put in their bodies and want a more true progressive candidate are being betrayed by their party establishment.”
He said the interest in Libertarians is so high that former presidential candidates have sounded them out about joining seeking the party’s nod.
“We have been approached by candidates who have dropped out of the old party races about running on the Libertarian Party ticket,” Mr. Sarwark said, though he declined to name names. “At this point, none of them have jumped in but we have explored the options and talked to them about the logistics of it, what they would have to do, how they would be able to become part of the process.”
The Libertarian nominee will be decided at the party’s convention in May.
Breaking the two-party dominance
After that, the challenge, as always, will be to break through the major-party duopoly, one that Republicans and Democrats often unite to preserve. The party will do the basic work, and is on track to be on the ballot in all 50 states this year.
Mr. Sarwark also said the Libertarians are the only political party in the country that’s actually growing, as more and more people decline to identify as a Democrat or a Republican.
But getting attention is always difficult — particularly with Libertarians excluded from the general election debates.
Mr. Johnson has sued the Commission on Presidential Debates to try to change the rules and earn a place on stage. He said if he’s simply able to get his name out there, Americans will see they match the libertarian philosophy.
Analysts said there is at least an opening.
“I do think this could be one of the best years in a long time for libertarians,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Despite the rising rancor on the campaign trail this week, he predicted the Republican voters will eventually coalesce around the eventual GOP nominee, “but certainly the anger and division in the party this year offer an opportunity for libertarians to peel off some Republicans who are dissatisfied with the eventual nominee,” he said.
Polling suggests Democrats are more united than Republicans, although there are some opportunities there, too.
But Mr. Johnson hinted that he might actually have some overlap with Sen. Bernard Sanders, who is challenging Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Johnson said he recently took an online quiz that supposedly determines the presidential candidates people match up with best and that Mr. Sanders was his second-highest match.
“So immediately what struck me was, ‘Wow! I get it. I get it!’” Mr. Johnson said. “Now, obviously we part ways when it comes to economics and that smaller government as opposed to bigger government, but I just think that speaks volumes … Bernie Sanders has obviously got a lot of libertarian-leaning in him.”
The Sanders campaign declined to comment, but Mr. Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has, like Mr. Johnson, been a critic of the United States’ military adventurism in the Middle East and is decidedly liberal on social issues.
“When it comes to whether or not Americans are fundamentally libertarian, the Libertarian Party is the only political party that really believes in all your freedoms all the time,” Mr. Sarwark said.
The polls showing voter dissatisfaction with the campaign and with most major U.S. institutions only fuel the Libertarians’ optimism.
“Everybody wants to see a third party,” Mr. Johnson said. “They have no idea why there’s not a third party.”