In the 2020 presidential election, the Libertarian Party candidate, Jo Jorgensen, gained 1.2 percent of the vote, less than half the partys 2016 election result.Jeffrey MichelsandOlivier Lewiswrite that despite signs that pointed towards the potential for libertarian voters to beking makersin the 2020 election, their dislike of DonaldTrump turned many to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.
In the 2016 US Presidential election,the former RepublicanGovernor of New Mexico,Gary Johnsongained3.3 percentof the national vote share,the highest on record foraLibertarian Partypresidential candidate.This modest milestonecould have been written off as the result of a race featuring two highly unpopular mainstream candidates, Donald Trump andformer Secretary of State,Hillary Clinton. But itmightalso haveportendeda more meaningful movement inUSelectoral politics,onein which a growing Libertarian Party or at least an increasingly independent bloc of libertarian voters gainsthecriticalmass totip the race.Infiercely competitive bipartisancontests, protests voterscould position themselvesaspower brokers.
When we entertained this possibilityduring the primary season,plenty ofsigns were pointing toanother strongresult for the LibertarianParty.The frontrunners of the Democratic Party primaries were relativelyradicalcandidateslike Senators Elizabeth Warren and BernieSanders,who were proposinga new pushofstateintervention in the economyanathemaof courseto libertarian ideology.Meanwhile,Trumps dominanceofthe Republic Party was unquestioned, blocking any attempt to move the party away from the incumbents brand ofblunt nativism.And the one RepublicanHouse Representative, JustinAmash,whodiddare questionthisdominanceand in doing so became a minorcult hero threw in his hatfor the Libertarian Party ticket.
But then, alotchanged. Democratsrallied behindmoderateformer Vice-President Joe Biden, while LibertarianschoseJo Jorgensen, a familiar face within the partybuta strangerbeyond it.TheCOVID-19 pandemicthenrenderedimpossible thein-personcanvassingnecessaryto raise Jorgensens profile. And itleftlittle place for libertarian discourse in public debate. In the run up to the election, thequestionwasnot whethergovernment interventionwasjustifiable, butratherhow much and what kind was needed.
As a result,inLibertarian candidatesfinished withjust under 1.2 percentof the vote in the 2020 election, losingnearlytwo-thirdsof theirsharecompared to 2016.
Did the2020setbackconfirm that theLibertarian spike of2016wasnot asignbut a fluke?Looking at the bigger picture,was it rash to consider thatlibertarianvoterscould becomekingmakersin US Presidentialelections?
One straightforwardresponsewas put forthimmediately after the electionbycommentatorsandpoliticianswho argued that the Libertarian Party nonetheless decided the election, spoiling a Republican victory. Despite underperforming relative to the previous election, Jo Jorgensons ticket still was the second-best result in Libertarian Party history, and it was enough to cover the difference between Trump and Biden in several swing states.
Thisspoiler argument rests on the false assumption that voters of the Libertarian Party, and moregenerallyvoterswhoseidentificationwithlibertarian valuesrivals their loyalty toany particular party, belong, in the end,totheGOP. It was precisely the extent to which this assumption was false thatprovides a key to answering the questions set out above.TheRepublican Party showed in 2016 that its turn to Trump could cost it a large portion of voters to a Libertarian Party protest ticket. Doubling down on Trump in 2020, the GOP proved it could pushthelions share of these same voters into the enemy camp,assuringits defeat.
Indeed, the story of 2020 is not the number of those who turned to the Libertarian ticket, but those who turned away from it, in favour of the Democrats.Among theeightmillion peoplewho voted for a third-party candidate in 2016 (half of which voted for the Libertarian Party), an overwhelming majority sided with Biden in 2020.The main indicator is thatwhile Trumps 2020 results are similar to those of 2016,Bidens are much better than Clintons in 2016.Some of these not-Clinton-but-yes-Biden votersmight be new votersor former Republicans, butexit poll surveyscorroborate the hypothesis that a significant number of 2016 Libertarian voters opted for Biden in 2020.
They did this despitethe fact thatJoe Bidenscareerrecord andelectoralcampaignstillpresenteda number of red flags for libertarians.Mostnotably, heproposedwhat could be become the mostambitious planof government spending in decades.But these concerns were evidently outweighed by the prospect of another four years of a Trump presidency. If there is any libertarian case for Biden, as onelibertarian commentatorput it, its situational, and that situation ends on January 20.
The 2020 elections showed then that theblocfrom 2016is still there and is still important, but that itspotential to determine electionscomes fromswingingfrom one party toanotherinstead of settling onand leveragingits own.
Unfortunately for libertarian-minded voters, thisleavesthem with onlyrelatively pooroptionsin future elections. There is apossibilitythat many of them will turn back to the Republican Party once it puts forth a less offensive candidate. ButtheGOPwill likely remain in thrall of thebloc that Trump forged,a bitter reality for libertarians whojust a decade ago seemed totake the reinswiththesuccess of theTea Party movement.The Democratic Party will surely keep some of the votes it won from this bloc as well.But the pressure to placate its far-left wing will likely outweigh its desire to permanently win over the moderate libertarians. And for the Libertarian Party to beanything more than a last resort,it wouldhave to prove itself capable of exactly that which it failed to do this election: rally this bloc under a common banner with a shared strategy, in so doing convincing mainstream parties that it cannot be ignored.
In the next Presidential election, theblocs voteswill likely be dividedbetween thesethree options,weakening theefficacyof eachand likelystokinga fourth option:abstention.
There is aparadox that limits the blocs potential.The same characteristics that predispose libertarians to be swing voters their pride in rational, independent behaviour,and their resistance to organised politics,if not outrightanarchism also makes them unlikely tocoordinate their actionon a large scale to optimallyleverage this position.Perhaps they could rally together through another groundswell movement like the Tea Party, not a totally fantastic scenario considering that resistance to governmentspending and restriction ofcivil liberties willsurely mount as Covid-19 recedes. Butcould this feed into an independent forcethat would break thetwo-party doom loop,withoutbeing co-opted by the general anti-establishment rage buoying the Republican Party?
Instead,Libertarian Party and independent libertarian voterswill havetosettle forgettingcreative andpickingsmallerstrategically placedbattles. We have alreadyobservedthis inthe elections for Senate, where libertariancandidates in Georgiahelped toforce two run-offs, the results of which will decide the majority. Therun-offsarestillmostly alose-losefor libertarians, butthereissurely athrill in throwinga spanner in the workingsof the major parties, especially if thisincitesthe opposition to offermore libertarian policies.AsLibertariancandidatein Georgia Shane Hazelnoted:I hope people understand that creating a run-off should be the primary mission until the party is much stronger.
Of course, the Libertarian Party can also think global, act local. In Wyoming,Marshall Burtbecame the first Libertarian to win a statehouse seatsince 2002, andthe fifthin US history. Via its Frontier Project, the Libertarian Party hopes to wina fewmore state-level seatsinNorth and South Dakota, Montana, Utah, and Wisconsin.There is also the possibility of winning more specific, less party-political ballots,viareferendums.In 2020,many referendumspassed seemingly libertarianproposals ondrugs, taxes, rent, voting rights,ranked-choice voting,andlabour regulations.Californian referendumsare a prime example of this, butAlaskaandColoradoare also interesting cases.
The questionofwhether the Libertarian Party or a bloc of libertarian voters emerges as a swing factor andkingmakerin future US elections will depend on the success of a project to carve a common identity and settle on a shared strategy.They could do this autonomously with their own party or by fitting into a spaceleft by one of themainstream parties.But neitherscenarioappears likely in the short-term,meaningthe battle for libertarian values will likely be waged where it has been waged best,far from the centreofthebiggestelectoral stage.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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Jeffrey MichelsCollege of EuropeJeffrey Michels is a Parliamentary Assistant at the European Parliament and an Academic Assistant at the College of Europe,Natolincampus.
Olivier LewisCollege of EuropeOlivier has been a Research Fellow at the College of Europe, Natolin campus, since August 2019.Olivier is currently writing his first book,Security Cooperation between Western States, to be published with Routledge. He is also working on shorter publications related to counterterrorism, counterinsurgency,and Brexit.
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