The Libertarian Vote Total

by Harry Browne

November 10, 2004      

Now we can take a little time off to celebrate the fact that for a year or so we will no longer have to watch negative campaign ads, listen to predictable partisan spin commentary on TV, or endure stupid remarks from campaigning Republicans and Democrats.

Meanwhile, however, too many Libertarians will be examining the 2004 Libertarian presidential vote total either pointing with pride or viewing with alarm.

My advice to them is to spend their time doing something more productive such as building the Libertarian Party to a level where someday its vote totals can be meaningful.

Too many libertarians (whether or not they’re in the Libertarian Party) fail to recognize the enormous obstacles that any third-party campaign faces and they ignore the tremendous opportunities the Libertarian presidential campaign offers.

OBSTACLES

America has a 2-party system, but not because of popular demand.

The Democrats and Republicans have legislated third parties into irrelevance using five principal methods: donation limits, reporting laws, campaign subsidies, the Debate Commission, and ballot-access laws.

To give you just two examples of the impact of these hurdles:

  • In 2000, the presidential campaign raised $2.6 million, but $250,000 of that had to be diverted into ballot-access drives in just two states: Pennsylvania and Arizona. That’s money that could have gone into advertising, but instead was of no value in campaign outreach.

  • In my home state of Tennessee, Republicans and Democrats are listed on the ballot with their party labels. But candidates of any other parties must be listed as "Independent." Thus anyone entering the polling booth determined to vote against the two major parties must know already which third-party candidate to vote for. If he doesn’t, he’ll be afraid to choose among the "Independents," not knowing which of them might be a Nazi or a Communist.

  • These are just two examples of the legislative barriers placed in the way of third parties. To list all the various hurdles would fill a good-sized book.

    OVERCOMING THE HURDLES

    The legislated barriers aren’t insurmountable, but they are very, very tall.

    They keep a Libertarian presidential candidate off the radar screen and prevent him from getting anywhere close to 5% of the vote. And they will continue to do so until two events can occur:

    1. The candidate can run a campaign of at least $10 million and $20 million or $30 million would be even better. Even though Republicans and Democrats pour hundreds of millions of dollars into their campaigns, a much smaller Libertarian campaign could achieve a great deal. For one thing, unlike with the major parties, most of the money would go into advertising enough repetitive advertising to finally be noticed and draw attention. And instead of wasting money on ads that attack one’s opponent(s), the Libertarian ads would be showing Americans how much better their lives would be if libertarian proposals were implemented.

    2. The Libertarian candidate is treated as a news item by the media. That means that reporters follow him around (rather than offering the single, obligatory interview), because they believe that what he says will affect the outcome of the election even if his victory isn’t considered possible. The most likely route by which the Libertarian candidate will become news is by having a large enough advertising campaign as described in #1 above.

    I know of only three ways a Libertarian presidential candidate could raise the money necessary to run a first-class campaign.

    Celebrity

    The first possibility is to run a celebrity candidate.

    Such a person might be able to get far more public attention than we're used to now — by attracting media attention and drawing large crowds to campaign events. This could make it easier to raise the money needed to do enough advertising to put the Libertarian Party on the political map. It’s also possible that a celebrity candidate would be able and willing to put a significant sum of his own money into the campaign.

    To draw crowds and money, the celebrity would most likely have to be in the entertainment business. A minor political celebrity (Governor, state legislator, or even Congressman) isn’t likely to attract the attention, crowds, and money needed.

    The biggest drawback to the celebrity approach is the danger that the celebrity will compromise important parts of the Libertarian platform. He could even turn out to be an embarrassment to the party, as Howard Stern was when he announced he was running for governor of New York, made some innocuous proposals, and then dropped out.

    Another drawback is that a celebrity candidate isn’t likely to produce a lasting value to the party. When Ralph Nader ran on the Green Party ticket in 2000, he generated almost 3 million votes. But he was no longer a Green in 2004 and David Cobb, the Green Party candidate, generated only about 100,000 votes. (Even Nader and Cobb combined drew only a half-million votes in 2004.) The Green Party didn’t get a boost upward from Nader’s 2000 candidacy.

    And, as with Ralph Nader and the Greens, a celebrity can't be counted on to stick around. You should never go into business with someone who has little to gain from staying and little to lose from quitting. The celebrity isn't as likely to have as much at stake and at risk as the Libertarian Party does.

    Although I believe a celebrity can do much in other ways to help the libertarian movement, a celebrity serving as a presidential candidate could easily turn out to be an embarrassing mistake one more silver bullet that hits the wrong target.

    Billionaire

    The second possibility is to have a wealthy individual as the presidential or vice-presidential candidate provided he will put many millions of dollars into the campaign.

    It probably would be safer to have such a person running as the vice-presidential candidate, as this would allow us to pick as the presidential candidate an articulate, well-informed, principled individual. A wealthy individual would probably prefer being second on the ticket anyway, as an effective presidential campaign has to be a full-time job for at least a year.

    Growing the Party

    The third possibility is to build the Libertarian Party to a size where its fund-raising base is large enough to finance a campaign that could put the party on the political map.

    This was the strategy pursued in the late 1990s. The LP grew from 9,473 members in February 1994 to 33,194 in November 2000. The Project Archimedes program was shooting for 200,000 members eventually, but it was inexplicably abandoned shortly before the 2000 campaign — just as the program was succeeding.

    A large party would give us the best of all worlds. Not only would it generate the funds for a major advertising campaign, it also would provide a larger pool of talents, skills, people with influence, and volunteers of all kinds.

    And it would allow us to choose the best candidate available at the time without regard to his celebrity or his personal wealth.

    WHY WE HAVE A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

    I recently read this statement in a political forum:

    The LP has been wasting its time trying to run presidential campaigns that stand no chance of ever getting elected, let alone influence public policy in our direction. In the wake of the disastrous Badnarik vote totals, it should be obvious to people by now that running campaigns at the national level are a waste of time, considering we are politically irrelevant and we still don't have the clout, the money, and the resources to swing the electorate our way.

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    Suppose for the moment that we’re never big enough to run a first-class presidential campaign with millions of dollars of advertising. I still believe the presidential campaign is vitally important.

    Even more, I believe the LP’s presidential campaign is the most valuable form of outreach in the entire libertarian movement.

    Organizations like the Independent Institute, Cato, Reason, Advocates for Self-Government, the von Mises Institute, and others do very important work. I’m grateful that I can rely on so much of their efforts.

    But aside from Downsize DC, there is only one element in the libertarian movement that takes libertarian ideas directly to the public through television and radio in a significant way at this time — and that's the Libertarian presidential campaign. Too bad it comes around only once every four years.

    Results

    I’m not privy to statistics from the Badnarik campaign, so let me cite the 2000 campaign to back up my contention.

    In 2000 I appeared on 53 national TV shows, plus 90 national radio shows. And I appeared on 455 local radio and TV shows. All this just between February 2000 and election day.

    What other libertarian activity gets that kind of public platform?

    Not only that, but appearances like that can be far more valuable than those made by other libertarians.

    Representatives from libertarian organizations occasionally are invited to appear on radio or TV usually to discuss some current proposal for more government. Unless they are unusually adept at converting discussions of issues into discussions of principles, their comments are limited to trying to stop a single new proposal — rather than making the case for moving toward more liberty, and rather than being able to show the benefits of libertarian positions on a whole range of subjects.

    But my appearances allowed me to push the libertarian line straight across the board, and in a positive way — advancing liberty rather than resisting more government. I was able to talk about increasing your income by repealing the income tax, assuring your retirement by freeing you from Social Security, reducing crime by ending drug prohibition and getting rid of the gun laws, providing peace and security through a non-meddling foreign policy, and so on. I was able to say, in other words, that there’s a much better world available, if we will but take it.

    For a 15-minute example of what can be achieved in a single interview, click here.

    In the 2000 campaign, Jim Babka and Robert Brunner did an outstanding job of getting me on radio and TV shows with large audiences, and it paid off. For part of the campaign, they were augmented by a public relations firm that had good contacts with national media.

    Even now hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive an email from someone telling me that he first decided he was a libertarian after seeing me on TV during the 1996 or 2000 campaign. An aggressive presidential campaign is able to achieve such results because it has direct access to non-libertarians, something not generally available otherwise to libertarians.

    Value of the Campaign

    By focusing on the vote totals (which can never surpass a million in our present stage), we overlook the tremendous good the presidential campaign can do right now:

  • It is the #1 form of outreach and public education available to the libertarian movement. The Libertarian presidential candidate is given a platform that simply isn’t available to anyone else in the libertarian movement.

  • It can help build the Libertarian Party by generating inquiries that can be converted to new members. In 2000, media appearances generated almost 40,000 inquiries to the LP.

  • It can promote the Libertarian label thereby helping local candidates, especially local candidates who are unable to get much media coverage.

  • An articulate Libertarian candidate can cause the media people who interview him to acquire new respect for, and pay more attention to, libertarians in general.

  • MAKING THE MOST OF THE CAMPAIGN

    To capitalize on the tremendous opportunities a presidential (or local) campaign offers, I believe the following are important guidelines:

  • The presidential candidate should be chosen first and foremost on his ability to articulate libertarian positions and principles in a few words and in a forceful way. Most everything else needed can be achieved by people on the campaign staff.

  • The candidate (whether national or local) must present a pure libertarian message, so that listeners begin to generalize and realize that even their favorite government programs probably are a mistake. If the candidate doesn’t know how to deal quickly and persuasively with some issue, he should take the time to discover good answers for it perhaps even seeking help from people who do know how to handle that issue effectively.

  • You should never present any proposal that a Republican or Democrat could propose.

  • A local candidate who isn't articulate should join a Toastmasters club or take special speaking lessons. To represent the LP properly, he needs to learn to think on his feet, organize his thoughts into brief statements, respond to questions, and take the offensive in interviews.

  • The candidate should focus on three or four issues, appropriate to the office he’s running for, couching each issue in terms of dramatic benefits that the individual listener could have if the libertarian position were adopted. He also should develop the skill of discussing any issue in terms of the individual listener’s life how the listener is being hurt by the prevailing policy and how his life would be improved dramatically by the libertarian approach to that issue.

  • Wherever possible, the candidate should focus on the benefits of changing present policies, rather than trying to ward off some misguided new proposal. When an interviewer wants to talk about some proposed new government program, the candidate should be able to point out its dangers quickly, and then go on the offensive — showing how much better off we'd all be by reducing government. We will attract more people by showing them how much better their lives could be than by trying to scare them about some new danger. People have enough problems already; they're not interested in hearing about new ones.

  • In interviews the candidate should use the word "libertarian" frequently: "The libertarian position is . . .," "The libertarian way to handle this would be . . .," "Libertarians want you to be free to . . .," and so on. The candidate’s principal task is to build respect and name recognition for the Libertarian label. We want people to understand that Libertarians have specific, realistic ways of making their lives better, and that only Libertarians really want them to be free to live their lives as they think best.

  • Every candidate, national or local, should assume that he won’t win his election even if he thinks he has a chance to win. If he does win, so much the better. But he should assume that his principal goal is to build positive name recognition for the Libertarian label, so that his campaign will benefit all other campaigns in the present and the future. If he ignores that goal and focuses on building his own name recognition, he will have achieved nothing positive if he loses the race.

  • TV and radio ads should be one minute, not 30 seconds, because it takes a full minute to present a libertarian position persuasively. The ads should emphasize the word "Libertarian," so that they build name recognition for the Libertarian label and help local candidates. An ad that focuses more on the candidate's name and just says, "Vote for . . ." is a waste of money.

  • TV ads should have the phone number and website address on the screen for many, many seconds — long enough for someone to grab a pencil and write down the information. Radio ads should give this information several times during a one-minute ad. Generating inquiries is a primary reason for running campaign ads.

  • Bumper stickers and yard signs are more valuable if they say "Vote Libertarian," rather than displaying a candidate’s name. This is true for local candidates as well as the presidential candidate. A "Vote Libertarian" sign helps all Libertarian candidates, the party, and the libertarian movement providing a lasting benefit. A sign with a candidate’s name helps no one after the campaign is over.

  • I must acknowledge that we didn’t adhere strictly to every one of these principles at all times in the 2000 campaign. But we learned a great deal — both about a proper campaign strategy and about the tactics necessary to get media appearances, spend money efficiently, and other technical matters.

    So that the knowledge gained wouldn’t disappear at the end of the campaign, Perry Willis and I wrote extensive campaign reports. Reading those reports could save future candidates, national and local, a great deal of time and money even if they think they can run better campaigns than we did. I strongly urge anyone who will be involved in any Libertarian campaign at any level to read those reports.

    THE VOTE TOTAL

    At this point, the Libertarian vote total is relatively meaningless. The LP simply isn't big enough today to overcome the hurdles that the old parties, using the force of government, have placed in our way.

    So before you criticize the Badnarik campaign for not getting a million or more votes, realize what they were up against and what they were able to achieve. Michael and his staff worked very hard and accomplished a lot, and the money donated to the campaign certainly wasn't wasted.

    The vote total should be the least of our concerns at this stage of the Libertarian Party's development. We need to be taking advantage of the enormous opportunities that can be exploited by any Libertarian campaign presidential or local and not pinning our hopes on a sudden, miraculous breakthrough in the vote total.

    If we run a large slate of candidates, we shouldn’t expect all the candidates to be as persuasive as the presidential candidate. But each candidate should take the time to develop good answers to the questions he will get, and good approaches to the issues he wants to stress. Most of the guidelines listed above apply to local candidates as much as the presidential candidate.

    The Libertarian presidential campaign can be the most valuable form of outreach available to the libertarian movement. We should make the most of it by focusing on what’s possible and not wringing our hands over what today is still impossible.

    If we concentrate on the opportunities especially by building the LP as rapidly as possible and running persuasive presidential campaigns we make it more likely that someday we will be able to run competitive races all up and down the Libertarian ticket.