If you want to see an experienced candidate in the White House, you might have a chance to cast a vote in November for a ticket with a combined four terms of experience running governments. But if you care about these things, you might not be interested in voting for the Libertarian Party — the party running such a ticket — which, as a matter of principle, has the least faith in government at all.
The Libertarian Party has selected Gary Johnson, its 2012 candidate and a two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, as its presidential nominee for 2016. Furthermore, his running mate is another former two-term Republican governor: William Weld of Massachusetts.
They're running against two of the least-liked presidential candidates in recent history.
In a Morning Consult poll released in late May, Johnson got 10 percent of the vote versus Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That's an impressive haul, and one that (if he made it through November) would qualify the Libertarian Party for federal election funding in 2020.
But the all-important number right now is 15 percent. That's the threshold to participate in the fall debates — a standard no third party has met since it was instituted in 2000. The Morning Consult poll shows Johnson isn't there yet. And maybe he won't be able to get there.
Libertarians used to have a home in the Republican Party. Not anymore.
For a couple of generations, many libertarians have considered the Republican Party to be the natural home of their movement. They've been an accepted part of the conservative coalition forged by intellectuals like William F. Buckley in the mid-20th century, then brought to the electoral fore by candidates like Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Republicans don't agree with libertarians on social issues, and many of them are more interventionist on foreign policy than libertarians might like. But for many libertarians, the cost of routinely supporting people who disagreed with them on many issues was worth the benefits: Libertarians had a seat at the table in the Republican Party, and Republican candidates could reliably be counted on to reduce government in at least some regards.
Though the libertarian-Republican alliance has been a happy marriage since the days of the Cold War (when the fight against communism justified foreign intervention on libertarian grounds), in 2016, the Republican Party has nominated the candidate of libertarian nightmares.
Not only does Donald Trump want to expand government in ways that you could describe as "conservative" but not "libertarian" — like deporting all unauthorized immigrants from the US, and temporarily barring Muslims from entry — but he threatens to erode the few victories libertarians have had in the Republican coalition.
"Free trade" had become a consensus Republican ideal? Too bad: Donald Trump wants to reinstitute prohibitive tariffs and trade wars. Republicans were beginning to express concern over government seizure of private lands via eminent domain? Too bad: Donald Trump loves him some eminent domain. Republicans were firmly committed to a "free market" solution on health insurance? Too bad: Donald Trump promises to guarantee health care to everyone, in a bigger, better, shinier way than the Affordable Care Act ever could. (And then there's the promise to expand libel laws and go after publications that criticize him; the apparent disregard for federalism or checks and balances; etc., etc., etc.)
By nominating two ex-GOPers, the Libertarians showed that they see a huge opportunity in 2016
As long as libertarians had a home in the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party only appealed to a narrow slice of people who described themselves as libertarians. It was too purist for the most practical libertarians (who could just work with Republicans). And it was far too practical for libertarians who believe that the current electoral system is so compromised that participating in it at all is a waste of time.
(Certainly you can try to participate in a system as a way of pointing out it's corrupt — one of the Libertarian Party's 18 candidates for president didn't register as a candidate with the Federal Election Commission, because he believes "it lacks constitutional authority" — but it poses certain practical difficulties.)
But if the Republican Party isn't a home for libertarians anymore? That might open up some opportunities.
The Libertarian Party is still a little ambivalent about naming a pair of former Republican governors to represent its party in 2016. Neither Johnson nor Weld was nominated on the first ballot at the party's convention.
Weld, in particular, came up against some resistance. He's always been too libertarian for the Republican Party — back in the 1990s, Senator Jesse Helms blocked his nomination to the ambassadorship of Mexico because Weld supported drug legalization — but he's pretty much always been a Republican.
In 2006, he accepted the LP's nomination for governor of New York while also running for the Republican nomination (a process called a "fusion ticket") — then dropped out of the race entirely when the GOP didn't nominate him, leaving the LP scrambling for a candidate. And as recently as this spring, he supported Republican John Kasich for the presidency in 2016.
The fact that the Libertarian Party was ultimately willing to nominate Weld shows just how much trust the party has in Johnson — and that it sees 2016 as a serious opportunity to grow.
The case for the Libertarian opportunity in 2016: experience grants credibility
One of the themes of Johnson's 2012 campaign was, "Be Libertarian with me, for one election." At the time, the theme made a certain amount of sense — there were certainly plenty of people who weren't excited about Mitt Romney or another four years of President Obama. But it's not surprising that he's recycled the slogan for 2016, because it fits this cycle even better: It's a perfect description of the opportunity a Trump/Clinton campaign poses for the right third-party candidate.
The LP has lucked out on timing. Their convention is happening at a point when both voters and pundits are beginning to realize who, exactly, they're stuck with as major party nominees — and trying to come to terms with a choice between two candidates whose approval ratings are underwater. That's not a bad time to make some news by naming the candidate who could be a third option.
The Libertarian Party has a chance to be the only minor party on the ballot in all 50 states. That is by no means a sure thing — Johnson was on the ballot in 48 states (plus DC) in 2012; the party is trying to get on all 50 states' ballots in 2016, but it's currently only assured a spot on 32. That's better than any other third party, but, again, it's a battle Trump and Clinton won't have to fight.
Here's where Johnson's selection of Weld as a running mate will really pay off. For one thing, Weld is a huge fundraising asset. His lobbying clients include casino magnate Steve Wynn. (There have been rumors that David Koch would donate millions of dollars to a Johnson/Weld ticket, but those rumors don't appear to be founded just yet.)