To the disappointment of devotees of laissez-faire government, from wild-eyed crypto-anarchists to grim Randian Objectivists, the rumored “Libertarian moment” that presidential candidate Rand Paul was supposed to usher in did not arrive. Indeed, a Donald Trump–Hillary Clinton general election has to be a real nightmare for libertarians.
But there’s a silver lining to these darkening clouds. Precisely because Clinton and Trump leave many voters cold, likely Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson is suddenly polling in double digits in general-election trial heats — barely double digits (10 percent in surveys from Fox News and Morning Consult), but double digits nonetheless. It’s ten times the percentage Johnson actually won as the Libertarian nominee in 2012, when he set a high-water mark for his party’s presidential candidates. He’s heavily favored to win at this weekend’s Libertarian nominating convention, and has already announced his running mate will be another former Republican governor, William Weld of Massachusetts.
To be very clear, Johnson will not be one of those third-party candidates with a sufficient concentration of support to have a chance at breaking into the electoral college and perhaps even throwing the presidential contest into the House of Representatives. His impact on the race is more likely to involve tipping very close states in one major-party direction or another, and thus luring major-party candidates to adopt Libertarian-friendly policies or themes. Given the extreme unhappiness of a lot of Republicans with Donald Trump, along with significant #NeverTrump talk of the Libertarians as a protest-vote option, you’d figure Johnson is drawing his support disproportionately from the GOP. But maybe not: Both of the recent polls showing Johnson at 10 percent also show him winning equivalent support from self-identified liberals and conservatives, and 18 percent from voters under 35.
Typically, third-party candidates lose support as the general election approaches, sometimes dramatically. Johnson’s short-term goal is to boost his support in polls up to the 15 percent level, where he might force his way into the presidential debates. This could become an obsession for Libertarians; part of that community’s makeup is the implicit belief that everyone can be converted if exposed to enough rational haranguing (that’s probably one reason Ayn Rand’s signature novel was so insanely long). One thing Johnson has going for him, other than a good start, is that his two-governor ticket is likely to look pretty well-qualified compared to Trump and whoever his running mate turns out to be. And if the Trump-Clinton contest turns out to be as nasty and negative as we all expect, then Johnson will benefit from staying above the fray. The major-party battle could get so heinous that the earnest fanaticism of the Libertarians will seem refreshing. And besides, as Americans, there’s a little bit of Libertarian in all of us, God help us.