Members of the Libertarian Party put a lot of energy into scrutinizing their presidential candidates and debating their alleged deviations from the party’s platform and strict small-government ideology.
There is not nearly as much attention to picking the hundreds of candidates for lower offices that the nation’s third-largest party runs every year. That approach of quantity over quality may be holding the party back from building upon the success it had with voters in the 2016 campaign.
The Libertarian Party often brags about the number of candidates they run
Libertarians often tout the number of candidates running on the party’s banner as a bragging point. While they don’t come close to the number of Republicans and Democrats who run each year, there are still more Libertarians on American ballots than all other third-parties combined.
A majority of gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections have Libertarian Party candidates, as do nearly a quarter of the races for the U.S. House, plus a fairly large chunk of state legislative races.
While this may seem positive, whether those candidates are always creating a good impression isn’t so clear. Very few of them have active campaigns and many are truly only “paper candidates,” even if they balk at that label.
These Libertarian Party candidates often have no campaign manager or staffers, other than perhaps a friend or family member who helps with the paperwork. Fundraising is negligible or non-existent. The only active campaigning done is often a handful of media interviews and a few sporadic online ad buys.
The large number of Libertarian Party candidates has only produced a small number of victories
The Election Day results are not impressive. While there are some exceptions, often Libertarians are candidates without campaigns. Most voters never know their names before seeing them on the ballot on Election Day. It’s a recipe for electoral disaster.
Is it possible that the problem is lack of vetting for prospective candidates? In most states and for most offices, running as a Libertarian is as simple as showing up and announcing your intention to run. No questions asked. No qualifications needed. No real approval process.
Only later does the party try to sort out who is seriously running to win. Worse, some candidates turn out to have a hidden scandal or criminal background that comes out only after the party has nominated them.
Others are just not prepared to run, speak in public, comment to the media, or even answer questions from the voting public.
Instead of a large number of candidates, the Libertarian Party should cultivate viable, quality candidates
Political operatives in the two major parties work hard to cultivate viable candidates. Among those sought out are individuals who are active in their community, who have certain career backgrounds with appeal to voters, and who can convey a sense of competence and professionalism.
Veterans, community leaders, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen are often candidates. Realtors and car dealers often make the cut, too, because their advertising has already given them a lead on the competition in name-recognition. Simple name recognition is the most valuable asset in lower-level grassroots campaigns.
Libertarian candidates, on the other hand, often include candidates with no name identification, that are underemployed, underfunded, and with little to no experience in campaign politics. And unlike the Republican and Democratic candidates, the Libertarian candidate does not have access to a wealth of party resources to help start and run a successful campaign.
Drafting qualified candidates to run for office is an important part of the strategy for the Republican and Democratic parties. The Libertarian Party could simply follow this strategy of seeking out the most qualified potential candidate and encouraging him or her to run for office. Running a limited number of quality candidates would target resources and may increase the odds of winning.
The costs versus the benefits of having a large quantity of Libertarian candidates
The Libertarian Party has set a goal of running at least 1,000 candidates nationwide in the 2018 election.
But could there not be another option?
The current thinking is that more candidates provides a better chance of finding somebody who has developed a real shot of winning. Then the national party can throw support behind these top level candidates.
An additional part of this thinking is that seeing a full ballot with many Libertarian candidates for a wide range of offices can also foster the impression that the party is more active and credible than it might otherwise seem.
But there is also the wasted effort, time, money and resources that are spent looking for the shiny gem of a candidate that might have the ability to win the election. Could those efforts and resources have been better utilized?
Could focusing resources and time on quality, and less on quantity, allow the party to boost its future beyond the single digit world of third party politics?
(Photo of Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s Presidential nominee in 2012 and 2016, at a 2012 campaign stop via Twitter.)