If you’re a first time U.S. Libertarian Party voter you probably wouldn’t guess that the national party’s actually been around since the 1970’s. Well, it has been. It was officially founded in 1971 and ran it’s first Presidential candidate in 1972. This article will take a critical look at the national Libertarian Party’s results over the past forty years.
Just eleven months after inception their first Presidential candidate John G. Hospers won 3,674 votes, or 0.00005%. That might not seem historic but the party did receive an electoral vote from a faithless elector. That made their Vice Presidential nominee Tony Nathan the first woman to ever receive one. While that wasn’t exactly a booming start the U.S. Libertarian Party’s results in the next election would be much better.
Interestingly, in 1976 the Libertarian Party ran the very man that cast their lone electoral vote four years previous – Roger MacBride. After his electoral history making he became friendly with the party and won their nomination for President. MacBride ran with David Bergland and this time around the Libertarian Party won 172,553 votes, or 0.21% of the vote.
The Libertarian Party built on that progress in 1980 when they nominated Ed Clark and David Koch. In fact, in that election they achieved their best results to date winning 1.06% of the vote with 921,128 votes. This time the Libertarian Party wisely decided to nominate people with name recognition and their own funding. Ed Clark had run for Governor of California in 1978 and received 377,960 votes for a respectable 5% of the total. David Koch was a successful businessman who was able to afford nationwide television advertising for their campaign. Those two factors proved critical to Libertarian Party success in the future as well.
Unfortunately, after their 1980 ticket, the Libertarian Party lost a considerable amount of steam. In 1984 they ran David Bergland who ran in 1976 as their VP nominee. As a result they only received 228,111 votes. That was just 0.25% of the vote which only 0.04% better than their results from eight years ago. All the progress they had seemed to have made was erased.
Learning from their mistakes in 1988 the Libertarian Party famously nominated a Republican Congressman from Texas the one and only Ron Paul. Although, even with this dream candidate they only managed 431,750 votes. It’s hard to say whether those results are good or bad. That’s still less than half the party’s 1980 vote total while 0.47% is at the same time almost double their 1984 percentage.
The results from the 1992 election give some more perspective. That year the Libertarian Party nominated Andre Marrou of Alaska and won 290,087 votes. That’s 0.28% of the total which is better than their ’84 results as a percentage but not in real numbers. It’s also significantly worse than their showing four years previous with Ron Paul. It’s worse still when compared to their previous high water mark in 1980.
Things would only get slightly better in 1996 when Harry Browne won the Libertarian Party’s nomination. He would again win the party’s nomination four years later. Sadly though, of his two runs his ’96 attempt was actually more successful. That year he won 485,759 votes (0.50%) which was the party’s best showing since 1980. That progress wouldn’t hold though and in 2000 Browne only won 384,431 votes. That’s over 100,000 votes less which comes in at 0.36% of the vote.
The 2000’s would continue to be unkind to the Libertarian Party percentage wise. In 2004 the Libertarian Party nominated Michael Badnarik and managed to win 397,265 votes. That might be ten thousand more than four years previous but it’s also 0.04% less of the total at 0.32%.
In 2008 the party decided to go back to what had worked previously and nominated Bob Barr. He had the name recognition of Ed Clark and was a Republican just like Ron Paul. Those two factors certainly helped as Barr was able to get 523,715 votes for 0.50% of the vote. That’s the highest vote total since 1980 and the highest percentage of the vote since 1996. But, yet again the Libertarian Party was far from their previous record.
That changed in 2012. This election had notoriously similar candidates from the Republican and Democrat parties which gave the Libertarian Party a chance to offer some real choice. The GOP’s shameless shafting of Ron Paul at the convention also gave libertarians reason to bail on that party en masse. Add the fact that Gary Johnson was previously a Republican and subsequently had some name recognition and you’ve got the highest vote total in the Libertarian Party’s history.
The 2012 election was the perfect storm for the Libertarian Party. They had everything going for them and Gary Johnson was able to pull off 1,275,971 votes. That’s over 250,000 more votes than the party received in 1980, however, it’s still not better. In 1980 the party earned 1.06% which is still a higher percentage of the vote than the 0.99% they got this time.
After forty years the Libertarian Party has only once broken 1% of the national vote and only once earned more than 1 million votes. They’ve also proven incapable of repeating that success in subsequent elections. Their 1980 success wasn’t built on and their 1996 candidate wasn’t able to improve when he ran again four years later.
Therefore libertarians have to ask if it’s really possible for Gary Johnson to do both of those things in 2016 without debate access. To get the 5% of the vote the Libertarian Party needs to get public funding would require more than five times their 2012 vote total. That seems improbable looking at the party’s record so far. Taking into account the small percentage of libertarians that vote for the Libertarian Party makes it even more unlikely. It’s hard to be so critical but libertarians need to be. Idealism must be tempered with realism and we have to consider all of the options.