As Libertarians seek 2016 inroads, is ideology their challenge?

Yes, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton aren't hugely popular. But third parties have their own hurdle: They're prone to ideological purity, while pragmatism is generally needed to grow followers and win elections.

Kevin Kolczynski/Reuters
Willy Marshall, delegate from Utah, announces the state's votes for Libertarian Party president during the party's National Convention held at the Rosen Centre in Orlando, Fla., on May 29.

On Sunday, the tiny Libertarian Party nominated a presidential ticket that is its most mainstream yet – two popular former Republican governors who hope to attract voters turned off by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In choosing Gary Johnson for president and William Weld for vice president, the Libertarians have selected candidates with governing experience, media and fundraising savvy, and at least some regional name recognition.

As former Governor Johnson of New Mexico argued in a speech Saturday, the party that won only 1 percent of the vote in 2012 now has the opportunity “to achieve major party status.” In a few polls, Johnson has been collecting about 10 percent in a three-way match-up with Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton.

But the Libertarian nominations were not without controversy and showed the tug-of-war between ideological purity, which is a defining characteristic of third parties in America, and the pragmatism needed to grow followers and win elections.

When Johnson voiced support for mainstream issues like driver licenses and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he was booed on Saturday by party faithful who bristle at government interference. He needed a second ballot to secure the nomination. Former Governor Weld of Massachusetts, a recent convert to the party, had to promise his party allegiance and also required two ballots.

“One thing great about third parties is their ideological purity,” says Brian Smith, an expert on third-party voting at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. But that very purity also has drawbacks, he says.

For instance, Johnson is fond of describing Libertarians as “fiscally conservative” and “socially liberal,” as favoring small government and freedom in personal decisions. In the abstract, that describes a lot of Americans and represents a potential gold mine of voters.

But drill down into the party’s positions, and what Johnson may view as a best-of-both-worlds sales pitch seems to others as “the worst of both,” Professor Smith says.

Democrats or independents who can’t bring themselves to vote for Mrs. Clinton, for example, might appreciate the Libertarian laissez-faire approach to abortion rights and gay marriage and the party’s anti-war stance. But these voters also believe in a role for government. They might be horrified by the extent of downsizing that Johnson envisions.

On the chopping block would be the Department of Education (what, no more Pell Grants?) and the Food and Drug Administration (huh, no ingredient labels?). If liberals didn’t cry out against Johnson’s proposed elimination of the Commerce Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration, some might about losing the Internal Revenue Service (who will make sure the rich pay taxes?). And would followers of Bernie Sanders vote for a party that supports free trade?

As for #NeverTrump conservatives, they might like to radically downsize government and replace individual and corporate taxes with a national sales tax, as Johnson proposes. But a 43 percent cut in military spending, as Johnson suggested in 2012? That would stick in more than a few hawkish conservative craws. Neither would social conservatives embrace Libertarian latitude on abortion.

“Libertarian ideas appeal to economic conservatives, but not to social conservatives, and the people who are most upset [with Trump] are the social conservatives,” says Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois.

If Libertarians hold inflexibly to their ideology, that could prevent the very growth that Johnson and Weld seek. But third parties generally suffer from an even greater danger when it comes to ideology, observers point out, and that’s the ability of the two main parties to incorporate their most popular ideas.

 President Obama, for instance, has been moving the country in the direction of alternative fuels, which is so important to the Green Party. After 1992, when Texas businessman Ross Perot gained 19 percent of the popular vote with his hue and cry over the federal deficit, Republicans and Democrats balanced the budget.

Look, too, at the Libertarian rejection of the “war on drugs.” Johnson is a former executive of a cannabis products company and supports marijuana legalization. That is no longer a fringe political position.

Third parties face many challenges to growth and electoral success, from money to name recognition and access to state ballots and presidential debates. But perhaps the biggest is the flexibility of the two parties to adapt, Smith says.

“Third parties come up with good ideas. But the main parties eat them. They cherry pick the best of what third parties have to offer and make them their own.”

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