According to Hugh Downs, “ All the really good ideas belong to the Libertarians.” For those of you not old enough to recognize the name, Downs hosted ABC’s 20/20 from 1978 to 1999 when such shows were watched by a far greater percentage of the public than they are today. And he was right. We Libertarians have been the party with the best ideas since our founding in 1971. From full decriminalization of cannabis to ending overseas military interventionism to balancing budgets at all levels of government, we offer the better way to do things and then the two establishment parties steal our proposals, only to implement them in self-serving ways that subvert our intentions. The one true and clear fact that Libertarians should carry away from study of our party’s history is that while we are committed to individual liberty as the priority and this will always result in the LP having superior policies to our opponents, the mere fact of having the best ideas is not enough to win elections. We must get better at promoting our ideas and candidates in the political marketplace, including taking advantage of opportunities presented by the process.
In 2016 LP presidential nominee Gary Johnson, a former two-term Governor of New Mexico, achieved the best percentage for an alternative party candidate in twenty years. Considering that the three candidates in the same category to attain better marks, Ross Perot, George Wallace, and Teddy Roosevelt, all had parties built around them, Johnson’s showing is that much more remarkable. Also in 2016, Mark Miller achieved over 5% to keep the LP on the ballot in Texas despite facing not just a Republican and a Democrat but also a Green Party candidate. Miller accomplished this by attaining recognition as the “only qualified candidate” for the office. The LP’s highest gubernatorial percentages belong to Dick Randolph, at that time two-term representative in the state house, in Alaska in 1984 and Ed Thompson, brother of then HEW secretary and former Governor Tommy Thompson, in Wisconsin in 2002. Riverside County, California, is the eleventh most populous county in the country. Jeff Hewitt won a seat on their Board of Supervisors in 2018 after starting on Calimesa Planning Commission, then winning spot on the city council, and then becoming Mayor of Calimesa. In partisan races featuring opponents from both establishment parties it is clear that being able to gain a level of credibility with the general public helps get votes.
In terms of presidential politics, one of the best ways to create the appearance of legitimacy is through the primary process. Donald Trump put himself in the driver’s seat for the 2016 GOP nomination by winning three of four February primaries and caucuses. Despite losing 34 contests to Hillary Clinton during the primary season, Bernie Sanders secured himself as a national figure by making the race about him and the eventual nominee. Barack Obama used early primary victories to narrow the race to himself and Clinton and never allowed her to catch up. Ron Paul’s insurgent campaigns in 2008 and 2012 made tremendous use of primaries and caucuses to gain delegates and give Paul a relevant voice throughout the nomination races. Pat Buchanan used the primary process to position himself as the most notable intra-party critic of the GOP in 1992. Even if it doesn’t lead to the nomination, performing well in the primary process enhances the visibility of a candidate to the general public.
There are fifteen states where the Libertarian Party theoretically would be able to have primaries, at least four are likely to have one no matter what the candidates or state parties choose to do. Each presidential preference primary would be an opportunity to be on a ballot and compete for the nomination in a way that all Libertarians across the country could observe to see who is effective.These contests are a chance to gain credibility and name recognition with the general public, build campaign teams and skills, and generate the kind of excitement and momentum that will pay dividends during the general election. More Libertarians participating in presidential primaries will directly equate to a perception of greater viability. In many states candidates would have the opportunity to campaign not just to registered Libertarians but also to Independents or even all voters, gaining support for November months in advance, not to mention seeking write-in votes in the establishment party primary contests.
There are many who would object to participation in what may be derisively termed a ‘beauty contest’ where the results may not be binding on delegates to the national convention who will select our nominee. Libertarians may want to avoid a process reliant upon taxpayer funds. Both of these concerns are in fact reasons to participate, in my view. Each would be held in conjunction with primaries for at least one of the establishment parties, so no additional expenditures of tax money will be taking place. And primaries that do bind delegates in an enforceable way would be a real problem; these are not. Letting states provide primaries for the establishment parties and not forcing them to do the same for the LP is abetting unequal treatment while doing nothing to encourage states to abandon the publicly-funded primary system. In fact, primaries are deemed so valuable that Libertarian affiliates in Oregon and Minnesota organized their own party-run elections in 2016.
Here is the schedule and requirements for Libertarian primaries:
* South Carolina — Feb. 29th — The state party would have to agree to have the primary and the filing fee could be as much as $20,000 which is one reason why they will not.
* California — March 3rd — Candidates recognized by the Secretary of State are placed on the ballot. Others may petition. Legislation to change parts of the process are pending.
* Massachusetts — March 3rd — Candidates recognized by the Secretary of the Commonwealth are placed on the ballot, others may petition.
* North Carolina — March 3rd — Candidates recognized by the state Board of Elections are placed on the ballot, others may petition.
* Oklahoma — March 3rd — There is a $2500 candidate filing fee.
* Idaho — March 10th — The state party would have to agree to have a primary. There would be a $1000 candidate filing fee.
* Missouri — March 10th — There is a $1000 candidate filing fee.
* Arizona — March 17th — There is a 500 signature petition requirement.
* New York — April 28th — Candidates would need to submit notice to the state party.
* Nebraska — May 12th — Candidates recognized by the Secretary of State are placed on the ballot.
* West Virginia — May 12th — There is a $2500 candidate filing fee.
* Montana — June 2nd — There is a 500 signature petition requirement.
* New Mexico — June 2nd — Candidates recognized by a state government committee are placed on the ballot.
* South Dakota — June 2nd — The state party submits a list to the Secretary of State
* Washington, D.C. — June 16th— There is a petition requirement of signatures from 1% of registered Libertarians.
Imagine in all these states as the media reports the results of the Democrat primary and it’s horde of candidates as well as how much, or little, headway Bill Weld makes against Trump in the GOP race that they also report who wins the Libertarian primary. If you are a Libertarian in one of these states, picture Adam Kokesh, Kim Ruff, Benjamin Leder and Vermin Supreme(or the as yet undeclared candidate of your choice) working on their ground game to reach you. And think about how much easier it would be to get your friends and neighbors to consider voting for our party’s candidate under conditions such as those.
Having the best ideas is not enough to win elections. We must have candidates who are increasing their visibility and viability to the average voter from day one and we must look the part of a serious political party that can challenge the duopoly of Democrats and Republicans. State-run presidential preference primaries shouldn’t exist, but as long as they do we should be using the state against itself by taking advantage to market our candidates and our ideas in order to increase our impact in November.