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With Trump vs. Clinton looming, Libertarians get a look

Major donors are going to Orlando this weekend, where Libertarians are expected to nominate two popular former Republican governors.

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    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the expected Libertarian presidential nominee, leaves the Utah State Capitol after meeting with with legislators in Salt Lake City.
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Not happy about voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?

The Libertarian Party hopes you will consider them.

This weekend in Orlando, Fla., Libertarians are expected to nominate a presidential ticket of two popular former Republican governors whose crossover message could appeal to disenchanted voters from both parties – as well as independents.

Libertarians are known as fiscal conservatives and social liberals. They support small government but also personal freedom on such issues as legalized marijuana and gay marriage.

"I think the vast majority of Americans are libertarian, they just don't know it," Gary Johnson, the expected presidential nominee, said in a recent CNN interview. 

Mr. Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, took a hard line against government spending, leaving his state with a $1 billion surplus. He is expected to run with William Weld of Massachusetts, who cut taxes and created a governor's commission on gay and lesbian youth.

Their stature and governing experience, along with the historically high negative ratings of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, lead some political observers to say this could be the “break-out” year for the Libertarians. They won only 1 percent of the vote in 2012, but recent polls put their share at about 10 percent in a three-way race.

That increase is important because only parties that poll at 15 percent or higher can participate in the presidential debates – a necessity for any candidate hoping to win the White House.

“The potential for a political realignment that favors libertarian ideas is real,” says Matt Kibbe, a leading figure in the tea party and libertarian movements. “Several major Republican donors are headed to Orlando as well to check out Gary Johnson.”

The party had only $35,000 as of March, and Johnson is hoping Weld can turn on the donation spigot, saying he could be a "huge influence" on fundraising. The former Massachusetts governor – who was reelected in 1994 by the largest margin in the state’s history – helped raise funds for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. 

One question is whether the billionaire Koch brothers, who have withheld their funds from Trump, might back a Libertarian ticket. David Koch was the Libertarian vice presidential candidate in 1980.

Money is just one of an array of challenges facing Libertarians, as well as other parties like the Green Party or Constitution Party, as they try to take advantage of the unusually high level of discontent with the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees. 

“Signs are brewing that this could be a great third-party year, but all the other obstacles still remain to keep third parties down,” says Brian Smith of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

Libertarians on the ballot in all 50 states

Professor Smith, an expert on third parties, says candidates from nontraditional parties do well when the major-party choices are unacceptable to many voters – or when the establishment is overlooking a big issue.

That was the case in 1992, when businessman Ross Perot burst on the scene as an independent candidate.  Mr. Perot hammered home the dangers of deficits as he competed against Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who was tarred with the “slick Willie” moniker, and President George H. W. Bush, who struggled against high negative approval ratings. Perot emerged with 19 percent of the popular vote, while Mr. Clinton clinched the presidency.

Third parties also do well when Americans know the candidates – the most famous being a former president, Teddy Roosevelt. In 1912, he launched his bid under the Bull Moose Party after failing to win the Republican nomination. He won 27 percent of the vote, but Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the White House.

Govs. Johnson, who headed the Libertarian ticket in 2012, and Weld “are both very popular governors. These are not fringe candidates,” says Emily Ekins, director of polling at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington that embraces libertarian ideas of small government and free markets.

The Libertarian ticket will also have the distinct advantage of being on all 50 state ballots in November, Johnson says. Ballot access is a significant hurdle for third parties, and is just one of the challenges facing Republicans who have been trying to draft an alternative to Donald Trump, whom they view as unfit for the presidency and not really a Republican.

Spoiler threat

One of the most powerful incentives not to vote for a third party is the “spoiler” threat. Democrats blame Green candidate Ralph Nader for costing Al Gore Florida – and the presidency – in 2000, while Republicans can point to Perot’s strong showing in 1992, when Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush.

Smith doubts the billionaire Koch brothers will back the Libertarians for fear that they will take votes from Republicans and hand the White House to a Democrat. “They’re more likely to sit on their billions, rather than give it, and end up getting President Clinton.”

Other huge obstacles stand in the way of alternative parties, including their ideology.

Libertarians may see themselves as the perfect blend between Republicans and Democrats, but it’s hard to imagine conservatives embracing their abortion-rights stance or huge budget cuts to the military. Likewise, why would Bernie Sanders liberals warm to their free-trade stance? Over time, the two parties have proved flexible enough to simply absorb positions that have made third-party candidates popular.

But this year is giving traditional voters pause.

“The best choice remaining for president (at present) is clearly whatever Libertarian Party option emerges from their fray,” wrote Leon Wolf, managing editor of RedState.com, earlier this month. “Under normal circumstances, Johnson would never get my vote because he is pro-choice, but there isn’t a functionally pro-life option on the ballot at present.”

Electoral college challenge

The Libertarian strategy is to deny the Democratic and Republican candidates the required electoral college votes, thus throwing the election to the House of Representatives. That, too, will be very, very difficult, says Smith.

Right now, the electoral college map favors Democrats. Libertarians tend to siphon off Republicans, so that would skew the map more in the Democrats’ favor, resulting in a likely landslide for Clinton, Smith explains.

To deny the candidates electoral college votes means Libertarians would have to win states, he adds. “You don’t see them moving from 4 percent to 40 percent” of the vote in a state, he says. Simply put, “there’s no state out there that’s prime Libertarian space.”

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