The Libertarian Vote Total

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Now
we can take a little time off to celebrate the fact that for a year
or so we will no longer have to watch negative campaign ads, listen
to predictable partisan spin commentary on TV, or endure stupid
remarks from campaigning Republicans and Democrats.

Meanwhile,
however, too many Libertarians will be examining the 2004 Libertarian
presidential vote total — either pointing with pride or viewing
with alarm.

My
advice to them is to spend their time doing something more productive
— such as building the Libertarian Party to a level where someday
its vote totals can be meaningful.

Too
many libertarians (whether or not they're in the Libertarian Party)
fail to recognize the enormous obstacles that any third-party campaign
faces — and they ignore the tremendous opportunities the Libertarian
presidential campaign offers.

OBSTACLES

America
has a 2-party system, but not because of popular demand.

The
Democrats and Republicans have legislated third parties into irrelevance
— using five principal methods: donation
limits
, reporting
laws
,
campaign subsidies
, the Debate
Commission
, and ballot-access
laws
.

To
give you just two examples of the impact of these hurdles:

  • In 2000,
    the presidential campaign raised $2.6 million, but $250,000
    of that had to be diverted into ballot-access drives in just
    two states: Pennsylvania and Arizona. That's money that could
    have gone into advertising, but instead was of no value in campaign
    outreach.
  • In my
    home state of Tennessee, Republicans and Democrats are listed
    on the ballot with their party labels. But candidates of any
    other parties must be listed as "Independent." Thus
    anyone entering the polling booth determined to vote against
    the two major parties must know already which third-party candidate
    to vote for. If he doesn't, he'll be afraid to choose among
    the "Independents," not knowing which of them might
    be a Nazi or a Communist.

These
are just two examples of the legislative barriers placed in the
way of third parties. To list all the various hurdles would fill
a good-sized book.

OVERCOMING
THE HURDLES

The
legislated barriers aren't insurmountable, but they are very, very
tall.

They
keep a Libertarian presidential candidate off the radar screen and
prevent him from getting anywhere close to 5% of the vote. And they
will continue to do so until two events can occur:

  1. The candidate
    can run a campaign of at least $10 million — and $20 million or
    $30 million would be even better. Even though Republicans and
    Democrats pour hundreds of millions of dollars into their campaigns,
    a much smaller Libertarian campaign could achieve a great deal.
    For one thing, unlike with the major parties, most of the money
    would go into advertising — enough repetitive advertising to finally
    be noticed and draw attention. And instead of wasting money on
    ads that attack one's opponent(s), the Libertarian ads would be
    showing Americans how much better their lives would be if libertarian
    proposals were implemented.
  2. The Libertarian
    candidate is treated as a news item by the media. That means that
    reporters follow him around (rather than offering the single,
    obligatory interview), because they believe that what he says
    will affect the outcome of the election — even if his victory
    isn't considered possible. The most likely route by which the
    Libertarian candidate will become news is by having a large enough
    advertising campaign — as described in #1 above.

I
know of only three ways a Libertarian presidential candidate could
raise the money necessary to run a first-class campaign.

Celebrity

The
first possibility is to run a celebrity candidate.

Such
a person might be able to get far more public attention than we’re
used to now u2014 by attracting media attention and drawing large crowds
to campaign events. This could make it easier to raise the money
needed to do enough advertising to put the Libertarian Party on
the political map. It's also possible that a celebrity candidate
would be able and willing to put a significant sum of his own money
into the campaign.

To
draw crowds and money, the celebrity would most likely have to be
in the entertainment business. A minor political celebrity (Governor,
state legislator, or even Congressman) isn't likely to attract the
attention, crowds, and money needed.

The
biggest drawback to the celebrity approach is the danger that the
celebrity will compromise important parts of the Libertarian platform.
He could even turn out to be an embarrassment to the party, as Howard
Stern was.

Another
drawback is that a celebrity candidate isn't likely to produce a
lasting value to the party. When Ralph Nader ran on the Green Party
ticket in 2000, he generated almost 3 million votes. But he was
no longer a Green in 2004 — and David Cobb, the Green Party candidate,
generated only about 100,000 votes. (Even Nader and Cobb combined
drew only a half-million votes in 2004.) The Green Party didn't
get a boost upward from Nader's 2000 candidacy.

And,
as with Ralph Nader and the Greens, a celebrity can’t be counted
on to stick around. You should never go into business with someone
who has little to gain from staying and little to lose from quitting.
The celebrity isn’t as likely to have as much at stake and at risk
as the Libertarian Party does.

Although
I believe a celebrity can do much to help the libertarian movement,
a celebrity serving as a presidential candidate could easily turn
out to be an embarrassing mistake — one more silver bullet that
hits the wrong target.

Billionaire

The
second possibility is to have a wealthy individual as the presidential
or vice-presidential candidate — provided he will put many millions
of dollars into the campaign.

It
probably would be safer to have such a person running as the vice-presidential
candidate, as this would allow us to pick as the presidential candidate
an articulate, well-informed, principled individual. A wealthy individual
would probably prefer being second on the ticket anyway, as an effective
presidential campaign has to be a full-time job for at least a year.

Growing
the Party

The
third possibility is to build the Libertarian Party to a size where
its fund-raising base is large enough to finance a campaign that
could put the party on the political map.

This
was the strategy pursued in the late 1990s. The LP grew from 9,473
members in February 1994 to 33,194 in November 2000. The Project
Archimedes program was shooting for 200,000 members eventually,
but it was inexplicably abandoned shortly before the 2000 campaign
u2014 just as the program was succeeding.

A
large party would give us the best of all worlds. Not only would
it generate the funds for a major advertising campaign, it also
would provide a larger pool of talents, skills, people with influence,
and volunteers of all kinds.

And
it would allow us to choose the best candidate available at the
time — without regard to his celebrity or his personal wealth.

WHY
WE HAVE A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

I
recently read this statement in a political forum:

The
LP has been wasting its time trying to run presidential campaigns
that stand no chance of ever getting elected, let alone influence
public policy in our direction. In the wake of the disastrous Badnarik
vote totals, it should be obvious to people by now that running
campaigns at the national level are a waste of time, considering
we are politically irrelevant and we still don’t have the clout,
the money, and the resources to swing the electorate our way.

I
couldn't disagree more.

Suppose
for the moment that we're never big enough to run a first-class
presidential campaign with millions of dollars of advertising. I
still believe the presidential campaign is vitally important.

Even
more, I believe the LP's presidential campaign is the most valuable
form of outreach in the entire libertarian movement.

Organizations
like the Independent Institute,
the von Mises Institute, Cato,
Reason, Advocates
for Self-Government
, and others do very important work. I'm
grateful that I can rely on so much of their efforts.

But
aside from Downsize DC,
there is only one element in the libertarian movement that takes
libertarian ideas directly to the public through television and
radio in a significant way at this time u2014 and that’s the Libertarian
presidential campaign. Too bad it comes around only once every four
years.

Results

I'm
not privy to statistics from the Badnarik campaign, so let me cite
the 2000 campaign to back up my contention.

In
2000 I appeared on
53 national TV shows, plus 90 national radio
shows. And I appeared on 455 local radio and TV shows. All this
just between February 2000 and election day.

What
other libertarian activity gets that kind of public platform?

Not
only that, but appearances like that can be far more valuable than
those made by other libertarians.

Representatives
from libertarian organizations occasionally are invited to appear
on radio or TV — usually to discuss some current proposal for more
government. Unless they are unusually adept at converting discussions
of issues into discussions of principles, their comments are limited
to trying to stop a single new proposal u2014 rather than making the
case for moving toward more liberty, and rather than being able
to show the benefits of libertarian positions on a whole range of
subjects.

But
my appearances allowed me to push the libertarian line straight
across the board, and in a positive way u2014 advancing liberty rather
than resisting more government. I was able to talk about increasing
your income by repealing the income tax, assuring your retirement
by freeing you from Social Security, reducing crime by ending drug
prohibition and getting rid of the gun laws, providing peace and
security through a non-meddling foreign policy, and so on. I was
able to say, in other words, that there's a much better world available,
if we will but take it.

For
a 15-minute example of what can be achieved in a single interview,

click here
.

In
the 2000 campaign, Jim Babka and Robert Brunner did an outstanding
job of getting me on radio and TV shows with large audiences, and
it paid off. For part of the campaign, they were augmented by a
public relations firm that had good contacts with national media.

Even
now hardly a day goes by that I don't receive an email from someone
telling me that he first decided he was a libertarian after seeing
me on TV during the 1996 or 2000 campaign. An aggressive presidential
campaign is able to achieve such results because it has a platform
by which it can go straight to non-libertarians, something otherwise
not generally available to libertarians.

Value
of the Campaign

By
focusing on the vote totals (which can never surpass a million in
our present stage), we overlook the tremendous good the presidential
campaign can do right now:

  • It is
    the #1 form of outreach and public education available to the
    libertarian movement. The Libertarian presidential candidate
    is given a platform that simply isn't available to anyone else
    in the libertarian movement.
  • It can
    help build the Libertarian Party by generating inquiries that
    can be converted to new members. In 2000, media appearances
    generated almost 40,000 inquiries to the LP.
  • It can
    promote the Libertarian label — thereby helping local candidates,
    especially local candidates who are unable to get much media
    coverage.
  • An articulate
    Libertarian candidate can cause the media people who interview
    him to acquire new respect for, and pay more attention to, libertarians
    in general.

MAKING
THE MOST OF THE CAMPAIGN

To
capitalize on the tremendous opportunities a presidential (or local)
campaign offers, I believe the following are important guidelines:

  • The presidential
    candidate should be chosen first and foremost on his ability
    to articulate libertarian positions and principles in a few
    words and in a forceful way. Most everything else needed can
    be achieved by people on the campaign staff.
  • The candidate
    (whether national or local) must present a pure libertarian
    message, so that listeners begin to generalize and realize that
    even their favorite government programs probably are a mistake.
    If the candidate doesn't know how to deal quickly and persuasively
    with some issue, he should take the time to discover good answers
    for it — perhaps even seeking help from people who do know how
    to handle that issue effectively.
  • A local
    candidate who isn’t articulate should join a Toastmasters club
    or take special speaking lessons. To represent the LP properly,
    he needs to learn to think on his feet, organize his thoughts
    into brief statements, respond to questions, and take the offensive
    in interviews.
  • The candidate
    should focus on three or four issues, appropriate to the office
    he's running for, couching each issue in terms of dramatic benefits
    that the individual listener could have if the libertarian position
    were adopted. He also should develop the skill of discussing
    any issue in terms of the individual listener's life
    — how the listener is being hurt by the prevailing policy and
    how his life would be improved dramatically by the libertarian
    approach to that issue.
  • Wherever
    possible, the candidate should focus on the benefits of changing
    present policies, rather than trying to ward off some misguided
    new proposal. When an interviewer wants to talk about some Republican
    or Democratic proposal, the candidate should be able to point
    out its dangers quickly, and then show the benefits of solving
    the alleged problem through libertarian principles. We will
    attract more people by showing them how much better their lives
    could be than by trying to scare them about some new danger.
    People have enough problems already; they’re not interested
    in hearing about new ones.
  • In interviews
    the candidate should use the word "libertarian" frequently:
    "The libertarian position is . . .,"
    "The libertarian way to handle this would be . . .,"
    "Libertarians want you to be free to . . .,"
    and so on. The candidate's principal task is to build respect
    and name recognition for the Libertarian label. We want people
    to understand that Libertarians have specific, realistic ways
    of making their lives better, and that only Libertarians really
    want them to be free to live their lives as they think best.
  • Every
    candidate, national or local, should assume that he won't
    win his election — even if he thinks he has a chance to
    win. If he does win, so much the better. But he should assume
    that his principal goal is to build positive name recognition
    for the Libertarian label, so that his campaign will benefit
    all other campaigns — in the present and the future. If he ignores
    that goal and focuses on building his own name recognition,
    he will have achieved nothing positive if he loses the race.
  • TV and
    radio ads should be one minute, not 30 seconds, because it takes
    a full minute to present a libertarian position persuasively.
    The ads should emphasize the word "Libertarian," so
    that they build name recognition for the Libertarian label and
    help local candidates. An ad that focuses more on the candidate’s
    name and just says, "Vote for . . ."
    is a waste of money.
  • TV ads
    should have the phone number and website address on the screen
    for many, many seconds u2014 long enough for someone to grab a pencil
    and write down the information. Radio ads should give this information
    several times during a one-minute ad. Generating inquiries is
    a primary reason for running campaign ads.
  • Bumper
    stickers and yard signs are more valuable if they say "Vote
    Libertarian," rather than displaying a candidate's name.
    This is true for local candidates as well as the presidential
    candidate. A "Vote Libertarian" sign helps all Libertarian
    candidates, the party, and the libertarian movement — providing
    a lasting benefit. A sign with a candidate's name helps no one
    after the campaign is over.

I
must acknowledge that we didn't adhere strictly to every one of
these principles at all times in the 2000 campaign. But we learned
a great deal u2014 both about a proper campaign strategy and about the
tactics necessary to get media appearances, spend money efficiently,
and other technical matters.

So
that the knowledge gained wouldn't disappear at the end of the campaign,
Perry Willis and I wrote extensive campaign
reports
. Reading those reports could save future candidates,
national and local, a great deal of time and money — even if they
think they can run better campaigns than we did. I strongly urge
anyone who will be involved in any Libertarian campaign at any level
to read those reports.

THE
VOTE TOTAL

I
hope it's obvious now that the vote total is relatively meaningless.
The LP simply isn’t big enough today to overcome the hurdles that
the old parties, using the force of government, have placed in our
way.

So
before you criticize the Badnarik campaign for not getting a million
or more votes, realize what they were up against and what they were
able to achieve. Michael and his staff worked very hard and accomplished
a lot, and the money donated to the campaign certainly wasn’t wasted.

Realize
that the vote total is the least of our concerns at this stage of
the Libertarian Party’s development. We need to be taking advantage
of the enormous opportunities that can be exploited by any
Libertarian campaign — presidential or local — and not pinning our
hopes on a sudden, miraculous breakthrough in the vote total.

If
we run a large slate of candidates, we shouldn't expect all the
candidates to be as persuasive as the presidential candidate. But
each candidate should take the time to develop good answers to the
questions he will get, and good approaches to the issues he wants
to stress. Most of the guidelines listed above apply to local candidates
as much as the presidential candidate.

The
Libertarian presidential campaign can be the most valuable form
of outreach available to the libertarian movement. We should make
the most of it by focusing on what's possible — and not wringing
our hands over what today is still impossible.

If
we concentrate on the opportunities — especially by building the
LP as rapidly as possible and running persuasive presidential campaigns
— we make it more likely that someday we will be able to run competitive
races all up and down the Libertarian ticket.

November
11, 2004

Harry Browne [send
him mail
], the author of Why
Government Doesn’t Work

and many other books, was the Libertarian presidential candidate
in 1996 and 2000. See his website.

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