Libertarians’ silver lining in Virginia

November 6, 2013

Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. (Ryan Tone/The Washington Post)

Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis was never going to win the Virginia governor's race. But he did better than most others in his party who've run for the top job around the country, the latest bit of encouraging news for advocates of the libertarian political philosophy, who have found increasing traction in recent elections.

Sarvis finished a distant third on Tuesday, winning just 6.55 percent of the vote. Not enough to get his party future ballot access, and not enough to be anything more than an afterthought in the minds of most people.

But stacked up against past Libertarian candidates for governor, Sarvis's performance all of a sudden doesn't look so bad. A University of Minnesota Smart Politics analysis found that his share of the vote was good enough for third all-time best among Libertarian candidates for governor and the best in a decade.

It's the latest reason for libertarian optimism.

In the 2012 election, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson took more raw votes than any Libertarian had before. The former governor of New Mexico won the support of 1.2 million voters, or about 1 percent.

Libertarians left a mark on the congressional and gubernatorial election landscape, too. In nine races, the Libertarian candidate claimed a vote share larger than the Democrat's margin of victory, according to a Daily Kos analysis. (The same is true for Sarvis.)

More recently, a Public Religion Research Institute poll released last week showed that nearly a quarter of Americans qualify as libertarians or lean toward a libertarian philosophy, which emphasizes individual liberty.

It's clear that libertarianism is edging its way into the political conversation more and more. The rise of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose libertarian views of privacy and foreign policy have received widespread attention, reflects this.

The conventional wisdom is that it is a bad development for Republicans, the thinking being that Libertarian candidates are siphoning votes away from Republicans more than Democrats. But exit polls indicate Democrat Terry McAuliffe still would have won without Sarvis in the picture, pre-election polls suggested Sarvis wasn't tipping the scales heavily in favor of either candidate.

In any case, the question of what Libertarians mean to the Republican/Democrat divide is worthy of more scrutiny than ever given the increasing strength of Libertarian candidates.

Part of Sarvis's relative success in Virginia probably had to do with the degree of negativity voters felt toward McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli II that was evident throughout the campaign. Even so, Tuesday's election was hardly a total loss for a political party and associated movement that has been leaving a bigger and bigger footprint at the ballot box.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Chris Cillizza | November 6, 2013