You’ve heard it a million times by now… Trump and Hillary have record-breaking negative favorability ratings. They are both facing significant opposition from forces within their own parties who solemnly vow that they will never support them. One is facing a civil trial for allegedly defrauding customers in a huckster sales-pitch “educational” program, the other is fearing a potential federal indictment for mishandling classified information.
Surely this is it – the moment we’ve all been waiting for. With such unpopular mainstream candidates, this is finally the chance for a third-party, if not to win the election, then at least to steal a significant share of the vote, make a real impact, and signal to disenfranchised citizens across the country that they are no longer beholden to a corrupt two-party system. The libertarian party is especially well-positioned to cash-in, as it has some awareness and credibility (particularly among young people) and is the only third party to have ballot access in all 50 states. Gary Johnson is already polling at ten percent! How could we ever have a better opportunity than this? It’s everything we could possibly have hoped for!
Too bad there’s no chance it’s going to amount to anything.
I am officially predicting that the Gary Johnson (recently selected as the libertarian nominee) will receive less than 2% of the popular vote in November. (As a frame of reference, he got 0.99% of the vote in 2012).
There are several reasons why the libertarian party generally and Johnson specifically are doomed to failure-as-usual. First, let’s deal with the “likeability” factor. Polls on favorability are generally treated as a proxy for how much the candidate is personally liked by voters – not necessarily a measure of “how much do you agree with the candidate’s positions.” Given that Hillary essentially admits she wants “more of the same” from the Obama days, and that many of Trump’s “extreme” positions (preventing immigration through physical barriers, using torture, targeting non-combatants in military strikes, granting preferred immigration status to certain groups over certain other groups) are in fact already current policy (even if people don’t realize it), it would seem that negative judgments about the candidates are rooted mainly in personality and/or character – rather than on their stated policies. In other words, people hate Trump and Hillary personally, but they don’t particularly hate the policies that either candidate advocates for.
But what about the #NeverTrump conservatives and the BernieBros? They have spelled out detailed objections to the actual policies advocated by the candidates of the party with which they normally identify. The neocons attack Trump for not being a “real conservative”. They hate that he isn’t sufficiently pro-war, pro-life, or pro-gender exclusive bathrooms. Meanwhile, the main policy objection to Hillary from Bernie supporters is that she is a puppet of establishment interests headquartered on Wall Street. She doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage high enough, she doesn’t want to raise taxes high enough, and she isn’t going to create enough new entitlement programs. Basically, conservatives hate Trump for not being conservative enough, and liberals hate Hillary for not being liberal enough.
Enter the libertarian! Fiscally conservative and socially liberal! Something for everyone to love, right? Maybe – but more importantly, also something for everyone to hate. Why would a social conservative who hates Trump for being too liberal support someone who is pro-choice, pro-drug legalization, and was ahead of even Obama on the gay marriage bandwagon? Why would young millennial socialists support a candidate who, last time around, campaigned on the basis of having vetoed countless bills for new spending programs and who advocates a fair tax system (aka, tax cuts for the rich, tax increases for the poor)? In both cases, voting for Johnson would require them to compromise on some of their most deeply held principles… and if they were willing to do that, they’d go ahead and just vote for Trump or Hillary. The whole point of a third-party protest vote is that you don’t have to compromise your core beliefs.
Let’s also address the polls supposedly so favorable to Johnson. As far as I can tell, the polls where Johnson does as well as ten percent are “three way match-up” polls where respondents are presented three choices and three choices only: Hillary, Trump, and Johnson. Unfortunately, no actual voter will be presented with this choice come November. Technically speaking, they will be presented with two choices. The first choice is whether to even bother voting at all. Given the spectacular failure of third parties (leading to the popular notion that voting for one is “throwing your vote away”) – the most logical decision for someone who hates both Trump and Hillary is to stay home entirely and just pass on voting altogether. But even those who value the act of voting and desire to “make their voice heard,” will be presented with a different set of options. The ballot they actually see will include Trump, Hillary, Johnson, numerous other third party candidates (likely to include candidates from the Green Party and Constitution Party who will be much more in line with the beliefs and preferences of socialists and neocons), and a write-in spot. If you want to vote for someone other than Trump or Hillary, you will have several options in addition to Johnson. It would seem as if ten percent represents his absolute ceiling in the most favorable of conditions: that all of the people who really hate Trump/Hillary actually show up to vote, and that he wins nearly 100% of those votes. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see that as terribly realistic.
While on a superficial level conditions may appear right for this to be the election where a third-party challenger finally shows legitimacy, further analysis indicates the opposite. Most of the claimed justifications for libertarian success are simply hollow and fail to stand up to serious scrutiny. Not only is Johnson a terrible representative for the ideas of libertarianism in general, but he will be a failure as a candidate as well. Don’t believe the hype.