The GOP’s growing Libertarian problem

November 20, 2012

It was a historic election for the Libertarian Party -- at least, by Libertarian Party standards.

So at what point does this become a problem for the GOP?

Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson took about 1 percent of the vote, winning more raw votes than any Libertarian candidate ever has (about 1.2 million).


A Ron Paul supporter at the Republican National Convention. (AP photo)

Johnson fell shy of the previous Libertarian record of 1.06 percent of the vote (the record belongs to 1980 nominee Ed Clark). But he did take at least twice as much of the vote as any Libertarian candidate since Clark -- including Ron Paul 1988 -- and he got more than 1 percent in most of the swing states.

On the Senate front, Libertarian candidates pulled around 6 percent of the vote in two key contests in Montana and Indiana -- the party's best showings in three-way Senate races in at least the last decade, according to a Fix review.

And as Daily Kos Elections' David Nir notes, in those two races and seven others, the Libertarian candidate's share of the vote was actually bigger than the victorious Democrat's margin of victory.

The suggestion some make, of course, is that these Libertarian candidates can -- and in some cases might have already -- cost Republicans winnable seats by siphoning off GOP votes.

This theory is feasible but impossible to prove. And it's too easy to say that all or most Libertarians would back Republicans without that third option. (Some may lean more toward Democrats because of social issues, while others might simply stay home.)

But what we do know is that more and more people are voting Libertarian, and it's quite possible that many or most of them would otherwise vote Republican. While we can't prove it empirically, it makes logical sense.

For one thing, the libertarian philosophy is more closely associated with conservatism -- there's a reason the biggest libertarian figures in recent years (Paul and Johnson) have come from the GOP -- so it's logical to assume that there's quite a bit of crossover between the two.

In addition, Paul's surprising impact on the presidential campaign should serve notice that there are plenty of people in America (and plenty of Republicans, more specifically) who are ready to embrace libertarian politics under the right circumstances. Can you imagine how much of the vote Paul would have taken if he had run as a Libertarian rather than Johnson?

That's a big reason why the GOP worked so hard to bring Paul into the fold. If you're losing voters -- no matter how many -- it's concerning. And in close races, a third party candidate can change the outcome of an election by taking just a few percentage points.

The question from here is whether the Libertarian Party continues to be an occasional nuisance, or whether it continues to build on its nascent progress and becomes a real headache for the Republican Party.

Given the GOP's ongoing problems with its brand, it's not hard to see voters continuing to desert that brand and pick an increasingly valid third-party option.

Romney donors annoyed with Christie: Two weeks after Election Day, the decision by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to tour damage caused by Hurricane Sandy alongside President Obama is still receiving attention. The New York Times reports there is lingering bitterness among some top Romney donors about Christie's decision to appear with Obama in the aftermath of the storm. One top Romney aide described the contributors as “furious."

If the negativity is a temporary byproduct of frustration at Romney's loss, then the story line will likely fade over time. But if the bad blood lingers and some top GOP donors continue to find themselves at odds with one of the party's brightest stars, it would represent an ill-timed headache for a Republican Party that is trying to recover from its 2012 losses. 

Fixbits: 

Vice President Biden celebrated an early Thanksgiving with wounded soldiers and their families. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) clarified his previous remarks about Pitbull, saying the rapper "makes party music not message music. Always been place for that in #HipHop.As he gets older he will have more 2 say about life."

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sees a possible split between President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on a "fiscal cliff" framework. 

The DNC and RNC communications directors will shave their heads for charity on Sunday. 

A former Romney economic adviser calls for raising more tax revenue

Nate Silver, meet Sophia McCrimmon

new twist in an election decided by one vote. 

Must-reads: 

"Conservative Republicans fight back after Romney loss" -- Paul Kane and Rosalind S. Helderman, Washington Post 

"For Obama and Clinton, Their Final Tour as Partners" -- Peter Baker, New York Times 

"Gaza conflict threatens Obama's plans for Mideast diplomacy" -- Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times 

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Sean Sullivan · November 19, 2012