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Friday, November 22, 2002

Libertarians as the G.O.P.’s best friend and worst enemy

For Libertarians, the fallout since the Nov. 5 elections has been particularly interesting. Even though the Republicans enjoyed tremendous success, they spent much post-election energy sniping at the Libertarians for denying them even more. As documented by Howard Kurtz in the Washingtion Post ("Taking Aim at Those Independent Thinkers" Nov. 22), Republicans have complained frequently and bitterly that the Libertarian vote exceeded the margin of victory for Democrats in several important races across the country. If only the Libertarians did not exist, the presumed logic goes, then those voters would have supported Republicans and the party would be in an even stronger position than it already is. That notion, and the Republican vituperation that has accompanied it, has garnered the Libertarian Party more national publicity than it has seen in quite some time.
Given that Libertarian voting returns were (relative to the Big Two) mediocre at best, this development is the biggest Libertarian-related news to come out of the 2002 campaign -- and points the way for Libertarian Party strategy going forward.

Following the elections, Eric Dondero e-mailed me a long analysis of the Libertarian election returns, the last part of which I posted on LT on Nov. 20 ("The best role for Libertarians: spoilers punishing big-gov Republicans"). Dondero argues that the best way for Libertarians to influence public policy is to follow the lead of the New York Conservative Party in its efforts to turn out votes in support of small government Republican candidates and against big government ones. He writes: "When a big government liberal wins the GOP nomination for a particular office, the Conservatives respond by running a general election candidate in opposition, usually denying the bad Republican the election. Conversely, when the GOP nominates a relatively conservative Republican, the NY Conservative Party rewards the candidate with an endorsement and an extra ballot position. This would be an admirable and very positive role nationwide for the Libertarian Party to play. But there is one huge problem. Instead of targeting poor Republican candidates in the general, the Libertarian Party has chosen the path of mutual suicide, targeting like-minded GOPers for defeat."

I don't know how accurate his last statement is, but I heartily agree that the role Dondero envisions the Libertarian Party playing is a wise course -- for both practical reasons, and for short and long term strategic ones.

As I see it, one attribute the national Libertarian Party lacks in terms of wielding power is a focus: the leadership seems to take a highly decentralized approach to both party promotion and campaigning. While it did a great job this year of turning out a record number of candidates in a multitude of elections across the country (which in and of itself is good publicity for a party) when the returns came in, the vast majority of Libertarian candidates received under five percent of the vote and were consequently reduced to the status of "also rans." As far as both the national and local media were concerned, they simply vanished off the radar screen. The exceptions, of course, came in the races mentioned above, where the Libertarian votes were the difference between a Democrat and a Republican winning a given election. (And that media attention came primarily because the Republicans took note of those races and complained loudly about them.)

At least for the short term, it is unlikely that the average Libertarian candidate will do significantly better than five percent. However, as we have seen, that small portion of the vote can tip the balance in a number of important races one way or the other (let's call these campaigns Spotlight Races.) The key, then, is for the Libertarian Party to determine which elections it can probably swing prior to the nomination process and then leverage its expected five percent of the vote in those races into disproportionate political power and publicity going forward. Here's how:

Let's map out a hypothetical scenario similar to what happened in some of the Spotlight Races of November. Let's say leading up to a 2004 primary, the Republican establishment starts to get behind a fictional candidate for US Senate by the name of Joe Smith. Smith is a big government Republican who has a history of supporting taxes and increasing government budgets; he supports corporate welfare and many social welfare programs; he supports foreign aid, foreign intervention, and international activism in general. Although he may claim to be, he is obviously not a true fiscal conservative and is unlikely to vote as one if elected. Because of this, he becomes a potential target for Libertarians.

Problem is, there are a lot of Republican candidates like Smith, and the Libertarians don't have the resources (and in many states, the votes) to go after them all. So before Smith's becomes a Spotlight Race, the Libertarian Party should ask and answer several questions about the state in which he is running: 1) How evenly is the state divided between Republicans and Democrats? Is three to five percent of the vote likely to swing the election one way or the other? 2) Does the state have a large constituency of solid libertarians and/or libertarian-leaning conservatives who are likely vote in the general election against a soft Republican candidate in favor of a Libertarian candidate out of principle? 3) Does the state have an articulate Libertarian candidate who can take up the cause and who is willing to run against Smith if he is nominated? If the answer is "yes" to these criteria, the Libertarians designate the Smith race as perhaps one of 10 Spotlight Races nationally and call a press conference to announce it as such.

The press conference is where the publicity campaign begins. With the potential Libertarian candidate present, the Libertarian Party announces that it opposes the candidacy of Joe Smith because of his various positions, and if Smith wins the Republican nomination, the Libertarians are going to target him in a spoiler campaign backed by the national party.

This will accomplish two goals: first, it will serve as a warning to Republicans to get behind a more fiscally conservative candidate or risk losing the race even before the election; and second, it will garner the Libertarian Party significant publicity as a showdown between two groups of conservatives (something the liberal-leaning media is always happy to publicize).

Given the history of the 2002 elections, such a threat from the Libertarians would probably not be taken lightly, and the Republican establishment may be forced to back a candidate more acceptable to libertarians. If it does, and that candidate goes on to win the Republican primary, the Libertarian Party has achieved a victory without winning the race and can withdraw its candidate and throw its support behind the Republican.

On the other hand, if the Republican establishment continues to back Smith's candidacy with the Libertarian threat looming, the primary takes on a drama that will only ratchet up the publicity. If Smith goes on to win the nomination, the race really does take on the trappings of a conservative vs. conservative showdown which, when the Libertarian candidate officially announces his candidacy, gains the Party that much more attention. From that point forward, the narrative of the race won't be limited to "who will win, Smith or the Democrat?"; it will also include the question "will the Libertarian vote be responsible for a Smith loss?" And when the election is over, if the Libertarian vote is indeed the difference, the Libertarian Party can declare victory -- all with under five percent of the vote.

Of course, in order for such a strategy to work, it would be essential for the Libertarian Party to focus it's efforts and resources on the Spotlight Races -- perhaps at the expense of other races throughout the country. But because those other races will likely be lost anyway, the expense really isn't that high. As I see it, it is smarter to direct resources towards a small number of high profile "victories" scattered across the country in the form of Spotlight Races than at a large number of low profile losses everywhere else. And given the publicity they will generate in terms of name recognition and identifying the party with limited government principles, they are an investment that is well worth making.