Gary Johnson ran for President in 2012, but you probably didn’t know that.
Johnson was a fringe candidate and largely overshadowed by the Republican and Democratic parties’ candidates. He raised just under $2 million over the course of his entire campaign and had so little media coverage that he held protests outside CNN to demand more attention. He ended with less than 1% of the popular vote at the end of election night.
Today, Gary Johnson’s campaign looks a little different. Though institutional barriers third-party candidates face haven’t changed much in four years, the electorate itself has morphed. Widespread discontent with Clinton and Trump have pushed some voters to seek out an alternative candidate. Johnson’s libertarian stances have helped him absorb a wider range of voters, many of whom are tired of the partisan gridlock that has come to characterize the establishment parties. He’s raised over $10 million already and been interviewed and referenced in all of the top media sources throughout the campaign cycle.
In an interview with Reason blogger Matt Welch, Johnson contrasted his two campaigns.
“Four years ago in June we’d be making about fifteen calls a week to end up with maybe on average one national media appearance of some sort a week,” the former New Mexico governor said to Welch. “As opposed to [now] having twenty national media requests a day.”
Now, according to RealClearPolitics he could receive as much as 7% of the vote, which would be by far the biggest success a Libertarian candidate has had since the birth of the party in 1971.
The 2016 election cycle has shown us the rise of libertarianism, a trend likely continue long after November. Many chalk this up to a particularly despised set of “mainstream” candidates, i.e. candidates like Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Paul Ryan – but the movement truly started gaining momentum before this election began. A contributing factor to this trend is a group that normally votes heavily Democrat: millennials.
The core ideological features of libertarianism have been a part of American government for much longer than the organized party has. Classic small government policies, such as a reliance on the free market and more power to local and state governments, have often been key Republican stances. Many self-proclaimed libertarian politicians, including Ron Paul, Rand Paul and Gary Johnson, have even run as Republicans in both local and national elections.
However, in the last decade and a half, the Republican and Libertarian parties seem to be drifting further apart. Although the U.S. saw two vastly different presidents both ideologically and personally in the past 10 years, some consistencies across the Bush and Obama terms have contributed toward pushing libertarianism into the national spotlight.
Sean Haugh, the Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate from North Carolina, believes two of these constants are “perpetual war and unsustainable debt.” The Bush and Obama presidencies have been characterized by a series of foreign policy issues and interventions, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, that Haugh believes have proven unsuccessful.
“We’ve been preaching the same message for over 40 years, so it’s very gratifying to see Americans supporting libertarian solutions [towards foreign policy and minimizing debt] and recognizing them as common sense,” Haugh said. “The average American recognizes, as Libertarians do, that our military interventions in the Middle East are not working.”
Michael Munger, an economist and professor of political science at Duke, feels similarly. He was a registered Republican five years before he ran for the North Carolina governorship as a Libertarian. War was a key issue for Munger.
“I was a Republican until 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq,” Munger said. “I had always had problems with the Republicans. I thought they would change. And they did. They got even worse. The Iraq War was just the straw [that broke the camel’s back.]”
The discontent that Haugh and Munger felt throughout the last 16 years in politics is not just contained within political circles, or even older adults. The discontent can be seen, perhaps most strikingly, within the millennial generation, or those aged 18-35.
Contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine Robert Draper wrote a commentary on the world millennials were born into and its effects on their political stances.
“Raised on the ad hoc communalism of the Internet, disenchanted by the Iraq War, reflexively tolerant of other lifestyles, appalled by government intrusion into their private affairs and increasingly convinced that the Obama economy is rigged against them, the millennials can no longer be regarded as faithful Democrats,” Draper said. “A recent poll confirmed that fully half of voters between ages 18 and 29 are unwedded to either party.”
This disillusionment with establishment politics has pushed the youngest voting generation to find alternative policy platforms and candidates. This is one reason we saw Bernie Sanders’ popularity surge as young voters flocked to his campaign.
However, other millennials were not as inclined to jump to the left.
Former president of Young Americans for Liberty Hans Riess provides perspective on why the Libertarian Party may see greater millennial attention.
“Both of the major parties, Republicans and Democrats, have left young people in the dark. It isn’t even clear what they believe in anymore. The Libertarian Party, with all it’s faults, at least has quite clear beliefs and reasonable positions on policy,” Riess said. “Free markets, free people: young people can get on board with that.”
Trinity freshman Sandra Luksic is one of those young people. She considers herself a libertarian and believes that libertarians are not a small subgroup, but actually comprise a significant portion of millennials.
“Everyone [at Duke] says that they’re fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” Luksic said. “And that’s the definition of a libertarian.”
She explained that the Republican party’s strong stances on social issues have made the party unappealing for young voters, who overwhelmingly are pro-gay marriage and pro-choice.
President of student advocacy group YOUnite Jacob Glasser agrees that libertarian ideals exist in the millennial generation, but does not believe it presents itself through actual votes in elections.
“I think there is a decent amount of Duke students that would consider themselves socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and this is probably for a variety of reasons. However, by no means would all of these people consider themselves libertarian and/or vote libertarian,” the Trinity sophomore said. “Many of them recognize the difficulty of a third party win and would rather put their vote into one of the two main parties.”
A Sept. 14 Quinnipiac poll seem to support both Luksic’s and Glasser’s observations. It found that among young voters, Johnson polled at 29%, but still 3% behind Clinton’s 31%. Only 15% supported Trump. In contrast, however, Obama won 60% of the youth vote in 2012, according to Politico.
As Nov. 8 approaches, it’s almost impossible for Gary Johnson to win the presidency. But the question then becomes, what will happen to libertarianism after this? Will the movement continue to grow or will it be quelled by stronger (and more likeable) mainstream candidates?
To Haugh, Johnson’s campaign has established Libertarian candidates as a more legitimate party.
“The best part is that we’re not just ‘somebody else,’ or a ‘protest vote,’” Haugh said. “Gary Johnson and Bill Weld have done a great job of presenting a truly credible alternative. It feels good to give people something positive to vote for, and the Johnson/Weld ticket has done much to advance not only the party but also Libertarian solutions in general.”
Glasser disagrees, viewing the two major parties as too dominant to be overtaken.
“If the Republicans lose big and Libertarians pick up votes on November 8, the Libertarians could try to remain somewhat relevant, but I don’t see them beating out one of the major parties,” Glasser said. “That just isn’t how our political system works.”
Riess has a different, and perhaps more realistic view of what a “win” for the party in the election would be.
“As far as the Libertarian Party is concerned, if Gary Johnson gains a sufficient portion of the popular vote (5%), then the Libertarian Party will automatically get federal funding and [most likely] ballot access in future elections,” Riess said. “This could fundamentally transform the role the party has in future elections. My hopes are high.”
Luksic agrees with Riess, but adds on that the Republican Party is likely to modify their platform to be more inclusive to libertarian-leaning voters. History reflects this as well. Third parties usually rise by tapping into a perspective that the two major parties don’t encapsulate. But the mainstream parties adapt quickly and often absorb this emerging perspective within a few election cycles.
One thing is clear though, libertarianism is playing a major role in 2016 and will continue to manifest itself in American politics, especially as millennials age and carry their “fiscal conservatism and social liberalism” into the political sphere.