Badnarik, Libertarians and Real World Politics

Over at H&R, Brian Doherty just linked to Thomas Knapp’s assessment of Michael Badnarik’s potential as a presidential candidate in 2008 — which we also covered here at HoT. Like Knapp, Doherty covered Badnarik’s negatives as well as potential:

…given some of his particularly eccentric views on income taxes and drivers licenses, in the aftermath of what just might be a very impressive showing in Badnarik’s run for Congress this year.

Doherty also linked to an older article I hadn’t read since it was fresh off the presses. While the primary purpose of the article was to cover the 2004 LP convention, he also spent some time trying to illustrate the differences between the perceptions and movitations of Libertarians and those of the general voting public.

I’ve been asked to speak at several events lately (promotional link for my next one), either about my insider’s perception of the 2004 LP convention or about my views on more practical politics. Because I’m generally lazy, I combined both topics into one speech — which covers an awful lot of the same ground Doherty did. My old client asked the general question I do early in my speech:

“We fight for freedom, which everyone wants, so why are we nowhere?” asked Libertarian Party (LP) presidential nomination hopeful Aaron Russo…

…On Sunday, he won the first and second ballot for the nomination, only to lose the third.

LP members often get offended when I say we’ve gotten nowhere. My response is that of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, only one is a party member — and he had to run as a Republican to get elected. Even this bit of logic doesn’t click on the lightbulb for some party members. Doherty’s view (which is very similar to a portion of my speech) begins to explain the distance between the LP and real voters. He describes what most people I know would consider to be the beginnings of real world politics:

Russo was abrasive and occasionally outrageous, but to me, charming. At least he exhibited a style no previous LP candidate had really tried. And if there’s one thing the LP seems to need after 30 years of failures and on a downhill trajectory, it’s something it hasn’t tried. Russo already had TV ads running on big networks in the Atlanta area — he was the first LP candidate ever to get a TV campaign rolling pre-nomination. He vowed that short commercials pushing an anti-war and anti-draft message would be where most of his campaign cash would go. He had already paid for some professional polling from Rasmussen that showed 19 percent support if people knew he was the only candidate who would end the war.

Then Doherty asked what I had been asking for a while:

As one longtime LP watcher told me after the stunning result, on one level it was clearly for the best. Nolan and Russo were both selling the proposition that they would run the most aggressive and professional campaigns. If they were such great campaigners, how is it that Badnarik, unable to afford even a bed, much less hospitality suites or strategy rooms at the Marriott, beat them?

Doherty came close to answering his question several times in the article. Here’s what I suggest in the speech (to close the circle, Knapp wrote most of this portion):

First, we followed a time-honored sales rule that didn’t apply: We sold benefits instead of features. When you’re campaigning to the electorate, the focus is on benefits — why things will be better if they elect you. When you’re campaigning to Libertarians; however, you’re speaking to an audience which is very much interested in features … not just on what the product can do for them, but on its specifications. For better or worse — and there’s a case to be made for both — we’re an ideological party. Russo went long on delivering the product, and short on waving the blueprint around. And Libertarians wanted to see the blueprint…

…Here’s one key lesson to remember: What works with the public may not work within the party. This is a lesson learned from the Russo race. Alternately, what works within the party may not work with the general public. This is a lesson learned from the Badnarik race.

I’ve engaged in national level LP politics for a few years and I’m not encouraged by what I see. Doherty has dropped electoral politics, Knapp’s resigned (and subsequently rejoined) the LP before, and I’m pondering the same issues they have. I’d prefer to help implement some reasonable political change in a libertarian direction than be part of another 35 years with no significant Libertarian Party outcome. I’m looking at three indicators to make my decision: the outcome of the 2006 convention, the outcome of the 2008 convention, and the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. If the LP doesn’t get serious about winning elections (as opposed to preaching to the choir) by then, I’ll be spending my libertarian efforts and dollars elsewhere.

13 Comments
  1. I’m with you there Gordon, only I’m not waiting. I am vowing to only support LP candidates, as they are the only ones that seem to actually do anything. The party is worthless.

  2. Yes, the future of the LP is blah. It has almost no power and will likely grow weaker. We have failed as a party for 35 years. Only when libertarians wake up to this will things change. We must use different methods. Methods that work. For example, the Free State Project may work best, but it is only one state and most libertarians are way to lazy to actually fight for freedom. DownsizeDC may get a bill passed, but the Read the Bills Act will never go anywhere. Free Talk Live, Bullshit, South Park,and John Stossel are hanging on there, but they may not be around for ever. We, as libertarians, need to stop wasting our time running for Gov, House, Sen, and Prez and actually do something for freedom, like vote with our feet.

  3. The party needs to be really selective about who it allows to run for office and which races to support with volunteers and dollars. If political parties were real parties, the Democrats and Republicans would be exclusive nightclubs filled with attractive and affluent party-goers… the rich and the famous.

    The Libertarian Party, on the other hand, is some cross between a poorly lit dive bar and the lamest birthday party you’ve ever been to. The one for the unpopular kid in Middle School where his mom just won’t leave the room and there’s a clown even though everyone’s too old for that.

    I’d rather see the party run 25 Congressional candidates in a year and average 10% in each race than run 200 and average 1%. The only way to attract more serious candidates in the future is to only run serious campaigns in the present. Demonstrate to potential future candidates that the party can support actual politicans and isn’t just a playground for eggheads, kooks, and serial candidates.

  4. Austin — sometimes our people at the lame birthday party get scared of the clown, too.

  5. The LP will never run 25 Congressional candidates in a year that average 10%. That is a dream that has proven to be a joke for 35 years. And if it did happen, it would have to be two-way races where 90% of the votes say hell no to libertarianism and freedom. America and its people are quickly moving away from freedom, not towards it. America will never be freer than it is now.

    Remember, the LP spent a ton of money at did its best in 1980.

  6. From my perspective, the LP is getting better and better.

    Timing is everything. Soon we will be awash in new recruits.

    Last night I heard Jane Fonda say “we” should abandon the Democratic Party and focus on “grassroots” efforts. If you think we’re fed up with our party…

    Mistrust for politicians: libertarians have had it longer than any other party. We saw this time coming in 1778. Anybody wanting to ride the wave of discontent will see the advantages of our 50-state organization. We’ll just have to make sure we’re not hijacked.

  7. I agree with Austin. I wanted to get involved in the North Dakota Gubernatorial election in 2004. Roland Reimers was the LP candidate and I contacted him to offer my help. This was before I spoke at length with him about why he was running and what he was running on. His one issue was fainess for fathers. I put him off for a week, just to see how he did on the radio… it was sad. Here was a guy, a kook, who was running as a Libertarian and I just could not put my support behind him, there was no way. I never helped with his campaign. I did find myself having to repair some of the damage that was caused to the good Libertarian name.

    I would really like to see a central body of Libertarians that do the research and find the best possible races in the country and seeks out the best possible individuals to run. And then use the masses to get behind those races, Presidential included. I guess I would just like to see a little quality assurance come election time.

  8. I’m not entirely convinced that the lack of LP success is entirely due to LP candidates or the LP platform.

    During the impeachment proceedings against Clinton, a large number of people couldn’t name the VP. Many people can’t name their House Rep. or their Senators. A good number of Libertarians have never read the LP platform.

    In an environment where just name recognition can make a difference, the major party candidates get billions of dollars worth of free ads just by being in the news.

    Then there is the matter of the mother’s milk of politics.
    Look at the 2004 numbers: Bush spent $367,228,801, Kerry spent $326,236,288, and Badnarik spent $1,093,013.

    Bush got 50.7% of the vote, Kerry got 48.3%, and Badnarik got .3%.

    The case can be made that better candidates and issues might garner more contributions, but the fact remains that name recognition must come first. The LP gets little media time (often negative) and the big guys get saturation coverage.

  9. Tom,

    Actually, the name recognition (and related money and media issues) are a key part of the speech, BTW. Obviously, great minds think alike.

  10. To Dave Miller. Sorry you chose not to help with Roland Riemers’ North Dakota gubernatorial race. I did help during that campaign. The Riemers campaign traveled to 281 towns and cities out of North Dakota’s approximately 364 towns and cities. I was both surprised and not surprised at the fact that many, many people here in North Dakota had never, ever, even heard of the words ‘Libertarian’ or ‘Libertarian Party’. But the fact remains that we did in fact engage a sound reconnaissance mission , if you will, exposing thousands of people for the very first time to ‘Libertarian’ and ‘Libertarian Party’. It is this kind of exposure and Party name recognition that is slowly but surely helping to build our base of supporters. The Republican and Democrat gubernatorial candidates massively outspent us, and thus were given massive media exposure compared to our paltry finances and media exposure in comparison. But at least thousands more were exposed, for the first time, to Libertarian ideology.

  11. @kzx767 – And that was great. When I was on the air on KNOX in Grand Forks I tried to throw out the ‘L’ word as much as I could. You can’t imagine the amount of emails I got from people asking what’s a Libertarian. I am all about spreading the word, but doing it with some tact and having an issue that doesn’t scare away the people.