Libertarian presidential nominee Jo Jorgensen was out racking up the miles, with stops from Alabama to Alaska, while Democratic candidate Joseph R. Biden spent much of the summer bunkered in his basement to avoid the coronavirus.
Over the past two months, she has made stops in nearly 30 states, topping even President Trump, with a schedule packed with campaign and official White House events.
She may be labeled a “third-party candidate,” but Ms. Jorgensen, the first woman to win the Libertarian Party’s presidential nod, has been campaigning like a top-tier nominee. She is convinced that the more people she can reach, the more they will be willing to break out of the duopoly that dominates American politics.
That’s particularly true this year, when neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate has a high rating with voters.
“A wasted vote is a vote for something you don’t want,” Ms. Jorgensen told The Washington Times. “Polls consistently show that people don’t like Donald Trump or Joe Biden. We have a situation where two people are running for office who nobody likes. People should notice, ‘Oh my gosh, I have an alternative.’”
The first big hurdle for Ms. Jorgensen — indeed, for any third-party candidate — is structural, and the Libertarians are convinced it is deliberate, too. As Daniel Fishman, the party’s executive director, noted, “the Commission on Presidential Debates isn’t nonpartisan; it’s bipartisan.”
The commission put the threshold at support from 15% of voters for a candidate to get onto the debate stage. That is nearly impossible for a candidate not running as a Republican or Democrat or, like Ross Perot in the 1990s, backed by a massive personal fortune.
Perot also made it to the stage with a lower threshold of 5% in polls. Libertarians are convinced that the higher threshold was adopted to make sure that never occurred again.
“It’s a private organization. They’re calling all the shots,” Ms. Jorgensen said of the commission.
Although her name will appear on the ballot in all 50 states — the only candidate besides Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden who can claim that — her polling numbers in the low single digits kept her from inclusion in the presidential debates.
Even without the debates, the Libertarians had to slog through COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions to get the number of signatures required to put their candidate’s name on the ballot in some states.
“Other candidates might be working for votes right now, and I’ve got to be signing some affidavit for the lawyers,” Ms. Jorgensen joked after an outdoor “town hall” meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, last week.
Ms. Jorgensen also said she had to bill some of her rallies as “protests” to avoid getting ensnared by shutdown orders.
During an appearance in Cleveland last week, she said, city officials made up rules on the spot, forcing her to convert a scheduled speech into a sidewalk talk.
Whether in a town hall or on the sidewalk, Ms. Jorgensen’s message is the same: There is nothing the government can do in a superior fashion to individuals in voluntary associations. In other words, markets trump regulations in every situation.
On education, Ms. Jorgensen would like to abolish the Department of Education and divert tax money and attention back to local and state offices that she says should control schools.
She also sees no reason for a national coronavirus mask mandate and thinks such decisions are properly left up to businesses.
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable for government to require masks in courtrooms, say, or in places where people gather and social distancing is difficult or impossible,” she said.
“But the beauty of libertarianism is you can vote with your feet and you can vote with your wallet. If I want to shop at Walmart where they require a mask, that’s fine. And if another store doesn’t require masks and I want to shop there, that should be fine, too,” she said.
A senior lecturer in psychology at Clemson University, Ms. Jorgensen holds the traditional Libertarian positions: She opposes all use of force and foreign intervention and calls for the immediate return of U.S. troops abroad. She would stop the war on drugs and reduce government regulation, particularly in health care.
“We are always saying, ‘Look at England’ or ‘Look at Canada’ when we talk about health care. But we should be saying, ‘Look at Singapore,’” she said.
There, furious competition and a wide open market have made visits to doctors’ offices and other health care costs far less expensive than they are in the U.S., where Ms. Jorgensen said layers of government oversight and regulations lard up consumer prices.
It’s a message Libertarians have delivered before, most recently with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012 and 2016.
He won about 1% of the vote the first time and 4.5 million votes the second time, good for more than 3% of the total. That was the best showing by a non-Democrat or Republican since Perot.
That still paled in comparison with polls in September 2016, when the Real Clear Politics average of surveys showed Mr. Johnson with 8.6% support.
This year, many pollsters aren’t even asking voters about third-party candidates. When they do, Real Clear Politics shows Ms. Jorgensen with 2.2% support and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins with 1.4%.
“With all due respect to Jo Jorgensen, you don’t really have a ‘star’ candidate this year,” said national pollster John Zogby. “I’ve got the Libertarian or third-party vote right now at under 2% combined, around 1.6, and that is very low. At this point four years ago, Gary Johnson was doing around 4, 5 or 6%.”
Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden remain in a tight race, and Mr. Zogby said that also works against third parties.
“Their support is generally strongest in the age 18-29 category, and really within the 18-24 category where traditionally you find people voting down ‘whoever is up,’” he said. “But that support dissipates in a close election, and the closer the election the less support in the end, even for famous candidates like Ralph Nader.”
Mr. Fishman, the Libertarian Party’s executive director, would like the U.S. to adopt a ranked-choice voting system similar to the one in Maine.
A ranked ballot allows voters to indicate preferences beyond the two-party confines, Mr. Fishman said. That would not necessarily equate to Libertarian victories, but it would make the party more competitive.
For now, Ms. Jorgensen scrambles from sidewalk to backyard telling voters that Mr. Trump has failed to do anything to rein in the federal government or cut spending. Mr. Biden’s foreign policy, she says, would be a tired rehash of low-intensity wars and foreign interventions.
Her campaign has raised less than $2 million, according to the most recent figures at the Center for Responsive Politics.
Ms. Jorgensen isn’t a political neophyte. She was the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1996 and ran an unsuccessful House campaign in 1992. But she understands there is some novelty about her bid.
“I’m not worried about what people say about me or what people think about us,” she said.
She recalled that economist Milton Friedman would take a Socialist Party platform from the early 20th century and show how much of it had become law.
“As long as our ideas get out there and become law,” she said.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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