Will 2016 be the year of a Libertarian breakthrough?

5 Aug 2016


This year’s American presidential election is gearing up to be one of the most unpredictable and polarising in recent history. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – the respective nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties – have as many detractors as admirers, resulting in the upcoming contest featuring two of the most widely disliked candidates in the country’s political history.


With Trump failing to gain the backing not only of many moderate Republicans but also the middle-of-the-ground swing voters that a successful presidential candidate desperately needs to win, and with a significant proportion of the electorate lukewarm, to say the least, in their feelings toward Clinton, a chasm has appeared in the centre of the American political landscape, leaving millions of votes up for grabs as moderates struggle to find a place to turn.


Whilst America’s heavily entrenched two-party system has made it nigh on impossible for third-party candidates to make serious inroads (not since George Wallace’s infamous, pro-segregationist campaign in 1968 has a non-Democrat or Republican candidate won any electoral college votes), the unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton has led many to start talking seriously about the chances that one of the smaller parties’ nominees have at matching, or even surpassing, Wallace’s performance almost 50 years ago.


Step forward Gary Johnson: former Governor of New Mexico, businessman, and, for the second consecutive election, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for the President of the United States. A former Republican, Johnson has spotted the hole that has emerged in the centre of the political landscape and has been quick to try to fill it. With Trump pulling his party further to the right on social issues and away to the populist left economically, Johnson, rightly, feels that the Libertarian Party’s chances of making a real impact have never been better.


‘Given the fact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I think, are two of the most polarising figures in American politics today, where is the third choice?’ he said in an interview with the New York Times. ‘I don’t know how you set the dinner table any more favourably for a Libertarian candidate.’


His strong chance of success has certainly been reflected in this summer’s polls. Real Clear Politics’ running average of national polls currently has Johnson’s share of the popular vote on 7.2 per cent – far surpassing the 0.99 per cent that he achieved four years ago – whilst one poll from June put him on 16 per cent (13 and 10 points behind Trump and Clinton, respectively) in Utah, a key state that could decide the overall winner of the presidential election.


Whilst polls should be analysed carefully before too much is read into them, continually strong showings are vitally important for Johnson, as his participation in the presidential debates depends on him polling at over 15 per cent nationally. The last, and so far only, third-party candidate to be involved in a debate with both the Republican and Democrat presidential nominees was Ross Perot, and the tens of millions of people that were exposed to the independent candidate through the widespread visibility gained from the debates resulted in him winning 18.9 per cent of the vote in 1992. American politics is as much about marketing opportunities and media appearances as policies and beliefs, so if Johnson is going to have any hope of continuing to attract undecided voters, a place on the debate stage is imperative.


With Trump splitting the Republicans in a way that the party hasn’t experienced since Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive over a century ago, it is widely believed that Johnson’s best hopes of success come from attracting GOP-leaning voters that have been put off by Trump’s brash, populist rhetoric. However, his progressive viewpoints on social issues could similarly hurt Clinton, who, after seeing off an admirable fight from Bernie Sanders, is struggling to connect with a significant number of the veteran left-winger’s admirers. As a fervent believer in the need for drug decriminalisation (he was formerly the chief executive of Cannabis Sativa, a company that develops marijuana products, and is a recreational user of the drug himself) and a supporter of same-sex marriage, as well as an open critic of the American military’s involvement in overseas conflicts, Johnson is well positioned to hurt Clinton as much as Trump if he plays his cards right and emphasises his progressive credentials to those that feel at odds with the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.


The former Secretary of State may currently be leading polls in the race for the White House, but the gap between Clinton and her Republican opponent is still dangerously close. Fiscally conservative and socially liberal, Johnson is arguably in the perfect position to not only hurt the chances of both Trump and Clinton but also to make history as one of the most successful third-party candidates in recent memory. If he does, who knows what impact that could have on America’s increasingly polarised and partisan political landscape. 

Read more articles by this commentator, or follow @bencullimore

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