The GOP's Third Party Problem

Amid the flurry of news out of Iowa in the days leading up to the January 3rd caucuses, another subtle story was unfolding. Former New Mexico governor and Republican presidential candidate,  Gary Johnson, announced he was abandoning the Republican Party nominating process and would instead seek a third party run with the Libertarian Party. His reasons for making this move boiled down to one: he felt totally disrespected in the primary process.

Granted, Johnson is an unconventional candidate who stood little chance of building a national organization for his presidential run. It is also granted that Ron Paul is the Libertarian standard bearer in the country and he sucked the air out of Johnson's Libertarian sails by running  hard in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Despite these facts, Johnson has a point. He was a loyal Republican with Libertarian views on social issues and foreign policy who served two terms as a governor of a state where Democrats easily outnumber Republicans. He not only has 8 years of executive experience in government, but he started a successful construction company before that. Like Romney, Johnson has a proven track record in government and in business. It can even be said that Johnson's fiscal and local policy record in New Mexico are more conservative than Romney's as Massachusetts governor. So why didn't he get a little more respect in the GOP primary process?

Johnson was only invited to two of the Republican debates. During the late summer, his campaign was disorganized and under-funded; but, so was Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachman, Newt Gingrinch, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman. Why were they getting air time and Johnson wasn't. He was a freakin' two term governor and no one wanted to hear what he had to say!

It is safe to say that the Republican establishment across the early primary states were already nervous about Ron Paul, who is a Libertarian, but acknowledges that third parties have little chance of success. Thus, he runs as a Republican to try and reform that party toward more Libertarian views. Having been a Congressman on and off since 1976 and barnstorming the country since his failed 1988 Libertarian run for President, Paul has earned a great deal of respect for this ability to not only survive in Washington but also motivate his dedicated followers nationwide. The GOP establishment couldn't run him off the primary ballots if they wanted to. However, with Paul already on the early state ballots and in the debates, the last thing they wanted was another Libertarian on stage (some even think Huntsman is a Libertarian at heart so that would've made three).

Gary Johnson's pursuit of the Libertarian nomination is not earth shattering news for 2012; but, what it signals for the national Republican party is noteworthy.

National political parties always require different groups with different agendas to cooperate with each other to win elections and get part of their platform enacted into law. The national Republican Party is made up of many disparate groups from Evangelical social conservatives to Wall Street high dollar businessmen to suburban home owners primarily concerned with public safety, taxes and education for their children. Their are fiscal conservatives, foreign policy hawks, school choice champions and state's rights advocates all smashed up into one party. Then there are the Libertarians who make up tiny pieces of all those sub groups. They are usually strict Constitutionalists who are very fiscally conservative, want to limit the size of government at every level, limit foreign military intervention and allow maximum freedom of choice to citizens on social issues. They are perhaps to the most vigorous proponents of states rights.

Is the big Republican tent no longer accepting of Libertarians? Gary Johnson's answer is no. Ron Paul has been berated for daring to espouse Libertarian, free market beliefs during the last few televised debates. Anytime a Republican suggests that social issues be left to states and individuals to decide, the party regulars jump down their throats and call them liberals.

Ron Paul has showed the party that 20 - 25% of the core Republican electorate has strong Libertarian tendencies. Another 10 - 15% would consider Libertarian views if their foreign policy position were modified a bit. While not a majority by any means, those are respectable totals within a broad based party. Can the Republican Party be a viable national party if it disrespects, rejects and ridicules a quarter of it's members? Some of the states Paul polls best in are swing states where hard line Christian conservative Republicans struggle to build electoral alliances. Absorbing at least some of the Libertarian message would help GOP candidates in states where Republican majorities have been fading away for more than two decades (Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, etc.).

Resent history does not suggest that a third party will garner much support. In 2008, no third party or independent candidate was able to garner even 1 million votes nationally. The last time a third party candidate did earn a million or more votes was in 2000 when Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader, finished with 2.88 million votes and nearly 3% of the total popular vote.

However, there are examples of 3rd party success in national politics. Ross Perot caused a lot of headaches in 1992 and 1996 when he earned several million votes in both runs for office (19% of the vote in '92 and 8.5% of the vote in '96). Illinois's own John B. Anderson got 5.7 million votes (6.6% of the popular vote) in 1980. John Schmitz got 1.1 million votes (1.4% of the popular vote) in 1972.

1968 was a high water mark in modern presidential politics for 3rd party contenders when George Wallace not only earned nearly 10 million votes (13.5% of the popular vote) but also carried 5 states worth 45 electoral votes. Most of us would like to forget that campaign because it was largely marked by Wallace's defense of segregation in the south.

There is no reason to believe that Gary Johnson has what it takes to get that level of support. Ron Paul might be able to turn his national brand into a viable third party run and there is no doubt the Libertarians have been pushing him to do so for a long time. There was certainly talk of Jon Huntsman running as an independent for a while, though his lagging poll numbers suggest that is a lost cause. Of course, Donald Trump continues to make noise about an independent candidacy. And is determined to field a candidate, though early indications are that their candidate might be more liberal than conservative.

If Mitt Romney closes the deal on the GOP side, there will be two major party candidates for president that are rather introverted, low energy and unpopular figures that leave plenty of Americans hunting for alternatives.

Democrats have balanced their factions fairly well, though environmentalists might disagree. National Republicans seem more fractured than in recent memory. Democrats may be irritated but with the exception of Joe Lieberman, they are not leaving the party or openly defying party elders and leaders. When a former Republican, two-term governor ditches the party because he got rolled in their primary process while people like Herman Cain got major TV and press time, you've got real problems. And any or all third party candidate(s) is/are going to cause the GOP big 2012 problems.

The Republicans will try to keep the Libertarian and any independents off the ballot in key states. However, in the modern age of communication, that move could backfire by further alienating potential voters who will hear about it and see the tactic as one of a selfish, power hungry, Washington-centric party.

2012 could be a turning point for national GOP leaders. Embrace the Libertarians as much as you can without compromising key foreign policy or risk alienating a sizable chunk of your motivate core. I hope they choose carefully and tread lightly.


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  • As you noted, there has been a Libertarian party since way back. As far as the 3rd party candidates between 1980-1992, I might have voted for some of them then, but none of them got elected. All Nader might have accomplished was to make sure that Gore did not get the marginal votes needed in Florida, and the Dems. have not let him forget it.

    Just as the Republican base, believed to be the Tea Party on the grass-roots level (not necessarily the politicians it elected in 2010), doesn't seem represented by the current crop of front runners in the Rep. primaries, I wonder if all the Occupy folks and other on the far left are going to come out for Obama in the next general election. Maybe the middle is taking over the Presidential contest, but the extremes on both sides will be around to cause more difficulty in getting anything done. Not even the Republicans seem to think that gridlocked government is good government. Of course, what we have in Illinois state government is worse than that.

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