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Justin Amash’s first steps toward a third-party 2020 bid, explained

The libertarian representative has launched an exploratory committee. But history stands against him.

Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) speaks to a school group on the House steps at the Capitol on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

When I got on the phone with Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) the day after he announced the launch of an exploratory committee for a potential run for the White House, my first question was, “Why are you doing this?”

The question didn’t come as a surprise to Amash, who entered Congress in 2010 as a strident Tea Party fiscal conservative only to leave the GOP last year before becoming the lone House conservative lawmaker to vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Now, five months later — and staring down an increasingly impossible reelection bid — he’s considering a third-party presidential run as a libertarian.

Amash, 40, told me he’s running because he believes he’s the best person for the job. “I think it’s important that we have someone who’s honest, who’s practical, who will have humility about the entire legislative process and the entire process for government and will allow us to get back to a place where we have a government that actually represents the people.”

Amash’s decision didn’t come as a total surprise — after all, he tweeted on April 15 that he was considering a presidential run. But the reactions to his announcement came fast and furious, particularly from Never Trump conservatives concerned he could pull votes away from Joe Biden and help incumbent Donald Trump win reelection.

Others noted Amash’s lack of national name recognition and the historic lack of success for third-party candidates. A writer at the conservative-leaning blog Ordinary Times said Amash’s 2020 campaign would be “something 10 years from now you will be mildly upset for not remembering during a rousing round of bar trivia while waiting on your wings at B-Dubs”:

Democrats only liked him for having the token R-turned-I to make their impeachment technically bipartisan. Trump voters aren’t going to give him anything but vitriol. So if your plan is for a little-known lame duck congressman with no discernible achievements in the one job he has held outside of a brief stint in the family business to revolutionize American politics, you might need to reconsider what you are pitching the American people.

Amash knows this. He’s tweeted about the angry response his announcement had received, and he told me he’s well aware of his lack of name recognition. “It’s important to get out there, talk about the issues, talk about the approach I would take to government, talk about the practical ideas I’d bring to the table,” he told me.

The Congress member is making a big bet, not just on himself and his ability to reach out to Americans outside of his home state of Michigan, but on Americans in general, who he believes are far more libertarian-minded than their voting patterns indicate. It’s highly unlikely to pay off. Even if voters say they want an option other than Trump or Biden, history shows third-party candidates rarely affect the outcome of an election. Amash, if he wins the Libertarian Party’s ticket, probably won’t be any different.

“People are being left behind,” he told me. “They don’t feel like they’re being treated fairly. They want to be treated with respect. And right now we have a government that doesn’t do that, and people have an opportunity in this election to change that.”

Justin Amash, Tea Partier turned independent, briefly explained

Before Amash became better known as a vigorous opponent of Donald Trump, he was a Tea Party stalwart and co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus. In 2010, a Michigan outlet described him as “a throwback” who “preaches a gospel of old-school conservatism: less government, lower taxes and less regulation.” He was known briefly as “Dr. No” for his penchant for voting against bills supported by his Republican allies, but some libertarians believed he could inherit the mantle carried by former representative (and former presidential candidate) Ron Paul as America’s best-known libertarian.

He argued against reauthorization of the Patriot Act (and was nearly primaried for it) and legislation aimed at prosecuting and fining websites that “promote” sex work. He opposed the Affordable Care Act, argued against federal support for the city of Flint, Michigan, and supported adding a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

But libertarian-leaning conservatism has lost its luster in the Trump era, and among many Republicans, so has Amash. He left the House Freedom Caucus last June, after the caucus voted to condemn him for tweeting that Trump’s conduct regarding the Ukraine investigation was impeachable. As I wrote last year:

But the crackup between Amash and the HFC is indicative of a larger and growing divide between Republicans and libertarians, one with real-world implications for Congress and our politics.

The growing conservative populist movement (of sorts) that stands directly athwart libertarian values of “free minds and free markets” is being felt in Republican politics. Rising stars in conservative circles, like Sen. Josh Hawley, are arguing against so-called “free market orthodoxy” on trade and calling for the regulation of social media companies, arguing that “holding big companies accountable who have amassed significant market power and are using it among other things to squelch conservative voices” is a conservative cause.

Amash plans to run as a libertarian. It remains to be seen whether the party will welcome him.

But Amash isn’t running as an independent in 2020. Rather, he wants to contest the nomination for the Libertarian Party, believing, as he told me, that voters value “being a part of something,” including a political party.

“Given the current dynamic with both parties,” Amash said, “the Libertarian Party can pull a lot of votes from those parties and can also consolidate a lot of independent voters who are not strongly affiliated with either party.”

The Libertarian Party nomination process also offers Amash the timing he needs to make an entrance into the presidential discussion. While the Libertarian Party does hold primaries and caucuses, those events are nonbinding. The presidential nominee is ultimately chosen at the national convention, currently scheduled to take place in late May. The candidate who wins the most delegates at the convention wins, period.

And while Amash is popular among libertarians, he has not previously identified with the party, leading some to feel as if the Libertarian Party is, as Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch said, “sloppy seconds” for former Republicans.

“If he wins the nomination, it’s the fourth consecutive former Republican elected official [to win],” Welch said. “It kind of starts making you feel a little bit used.” Daniel McCarthy, a writer at the conservative outlet the Spectator, wrote of the Libertarian Party, “the fact that it doesn’t even have a leadership cadre of its own, but every four years now turns to a former Republican as its presidential standard-bearer, is revealing.”

But Amash offers valuable attention and a fundraising opportunity for the party, which Welch told me it badly needs. “The main problem is that the natural state of affairs for third parties in this country is just misery,” he said. “So yes, you could try to reassert yourself and say, ‘Let’s have some home grown energy,’ [and nominate] lifetime libertarian types of people from within, and you will go out and you will get your 0.4 percent of the vote, which has been pretty constant over long periods of time.”

The current frontrunner for the nomination, Jacob Hornberger, founder of the libertarian think tank Future of Freedom Foundation, agrees. Hornberger won primary contests in New York, North Carolina, California, Missouri, and Connecticut. And though he somewhat dismissively told the Dispatch that Amash would likely run a “Republican-lite” campaign, he also told Vox he welcomed the national media attention the Michigan lawmaker might bring.

“Congressman Amash’s entry into the race for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination provides a big benefit to the LP,” he wrote in an email. “It not only brings an air of excitement to the race, it also focuses the attention of the national media on the LP presidential debates. ... Moreover, whoever wins the LP presidential nomination will now be assured of national media attention.”

Welch added that Amash is “actually the most libertarian dude of this parade of Republicans by far — he’s objectively more libertarian than [2016 LP nominee] Gary Johnson in most ways, and certainly more than [2008 nominee] Bob Barr.”

He certainly is. Amash voted against a proposed national suicide prevention hotline because he thought the bill lacked a constitutional basis. He voted against a bill expressing support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. He thinks the Department of Education should be abolished. In fact, on many issues, particularly those regarding executive power and the role of government, Amash is far more conservative than Trump.

But Amash believes his views mirror those of most Americans, but those Americans aren’t being heard. When I spoke with him back in July, he told me:

One of the reasons I’ve always described myself as libertarian and use that word repeatedly is so that people will connect the word to the work I’m doing. One of the things I like to tell libertarians when I go to conferences and other places is that libertarians are not really a small minority in the country. Most Americans have rather libertarian tendencies or classical liberal tendencies — the spirit of this country is very much libertarian or classical liberal.

Most Americans, in my view, fall within the sphere of libertarianism or classical liberalism. They might not call themselves libertarian, they might not call themselves classical liberals, but they fall within that sphere and could support a party that presents those ideas. And so I think that there is room for a third party presenting those, that’s presenting that vision.

When we spoke, I was reminded of a conversation I had in 2016 with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson. He also told me, “I think most Americans are libertarian, they just don’t know it,” adding that libertarianism — in his view, a combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism — made him the ideal alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (Johnson won just over 3 percent of the popular vote in 2016.)

And while the Libertarian Party is growing rapidly, relatively few Americans describe themselves as being libertarian, though they might hold libertarian views. So whether any more Americans would vote for a Libertarian Party nominee for president than in 2016 is questionable, particularly in an election many see as a binary choice between Trump and Biden.

Data says Amash will likely have little impact on the race

While many Americans support the concept of third parties, they don’t tend to vote for them, particularly in presidential elections featuring an incumbent nominee. For example, while in 2016 third-party candidates (Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, and independent candidate Evan McMullin) received roughly 7 million votes, Johnson won just 1.2 million votes in 2012. Ralph Nader won 2.8 million votes in 2000 — and received just over 465,000 votes in 2004.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley detailed in 2019, while many voters identify as independents and thus might be more amenable to a third-party candidate, their voting patterns indicate otherwise:

For example, if we include independent leaners with the party they preferred, 92 percent of Democrats and Republicans backed their respective party nominees in the 2016 presidential election. And despite the 2016 election featuring the two most unpopular major-party nominees in modern times, only 6 percent of voters decided to cast ballots for third-party candidates. In fact, the last time third-party candidates accounted for more than 10 percent of the vote was more than 20 years ago, in the 1996 election.

I spoke with David Byler, a data analyst and political columnist at the Washington Post, who told me these results are due, in part, to partisan affiliation and increasing political polarization. “All of that stuff has downstream effects on third-party candidates. It’s just hard for them to get a lot of votes,” he said. “And in most scenarios, even in 2016 when we had two historically really disliked candidates, the third-party candidates, Johnson and Stein, didn’t crack double digits.”

Byler added that the voters who look to third parties are generally not interested in either Democrats or Republicans, contra concerns from some liberals and anti-Trump conservatives who think Amash could play spoiler. “Some [third-party voters] are Republicans or Democrats who are protesting against the major-party candidates or feel like they can’t vote for their party’s candidate. But some of them are just libertarians, and are people whose true first preference are these third-party candidates and aren’t really as up for grabs as I think people might think.”

And even that portion of third-party voters who are “protesting” the two main parties will probably shrink this year, according to Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. In 2020, Democrats are less disposed to a protest vote if it means Trump staying in office. Coleman told me, “If I’m a Democratic voter and I’m not too enthused about Joe Biden, well, it’s more important that we beat Trump.”

“I don’t think that we’re going to see as much of a third-party” influence in 2020, Coleman said. “Because I think compared to 2016, both sides are going to probably be doing a better job of mobilizing their base.”

It’s worth noting another possible factor in Amash’s decision-making — though he told me he “felt confident I could win reelection” in his district, available data says otherwise. Yes, Amash stopped fundraising earlier this spring in advance of a possible presidential run, but he faced an uphill battle in any case, running as an independent in a state that permits straight-ticket voting against both Democratic and Republican candidates (particularly as a Trump critic).

Amash told me he’s not worried about accusations that his run might keep Trump in office. “People should vote for the person they want to win,” he said. “And if someone wants me to win, they should vote for me. And if someone wants someone else to win, they should vote for that other person. It’s a pretty simple, frankly, and more choices is better for the American people.”

Moreover, he fundamentally believes that Trump and Biden represent equally bad choices for American voters.

“If people want to vote for me, they can vote for me. And if they don’t want to, they’re welcome to vote for one of the other candidates,” he said. “I think they’d be making a mistake. And I think they probably know that they’d be making a mistake voting for one of the other candidates. And I think most Americans would believe that, but that’s up to each person and they’re allowed to do whatever they want. They’re individuals.”

Correction, May 4: A previous version of this story misstated Gary Johnson’s 2016 vote total.

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