Why do Libertarians do Poorly in General Elections?

In the last election, internet mock elections had Harry Browne doing extremely well. Even a large mock election by Time or CNN had Harry Browne winning, as I recall. Judging by this board, there are a ton of Libertarians kicking around.

I’ve seen Harry Browne on a few shows lately, and his sound bites always get huge applause from the audience.

The Libertarians have a pretty good political organization, and are almost always on the ballot in all 50 states.

Yet, in the general elections the libertarians routinely only get 1-3% of the vote. They often get beat by some weirdo fringe candidates.

So, how come? Is it the lack of money? Lack of exposure? If Harry Browne accepted federal funds and was allowed into the debates, how many votes could he get?

Don’t get me wrong - I don’t expect Libertarians to win the election or even come close. I’m not sure I’d WANT them to, either. But I think it would be exceedingly healthy for the U.S. if the Libertarians were to get, say, 15% of the vote. This would create a 3rd party bloc that the candidates would have to pander to in the next election, like they’ve pandered to the reform party. It would be yet another check against big government.

If a big celebrity or someone with a lot of money were to run for President for the Libertarian party, how well could they do? There are some pretty rich folks out there who are Libertarians (TJ Rogers comes to mind).

Ross Perot could pull it off, and a few others, but if you don’t have a powerful speaking style, and a small base, you have too many negatives. People like to vote for winners, or at least a guy who can lose and not look like he was a chump for trying.

It’s a conspiracy, stupid!!!


Seeing as I think this is a really good question I’ll WAG a bit in the hopes of getting things moving. Bear in mind I am neither American nor libertarian.
[ul][li]Your first point that there seems to be lots of them here and on the net generally is easily dealt with. The net is not representative of the general population.[/li][li]Also - and probably equally importantly - since there are relatively few regulations on the net there are necessarily few vested interests threatened by deregulation.[/li][li]Since the net has by-and-large been beneficial to almost all those using it, lots of people are happy with the way it is. If in a few years time the thing stops growing, there are lots of scams and/ or the market becomes much more concentrated, expect more participants to start asking for government intervention. Now at least we are getting a great deal.[/li][li]What is the Libertarian Party trying to achieve? I don’t know, but maybe they are trying to do exactly what they are doing - bringing some issues to the attention of the public and the major parties.[/li][li]In your electoral system critical mass for representation is pretty high, and unless you are expected to reach there abouts your vote will remain low as people decide either to stay at home or go for a lesser of two evils approach.[/li][li]Libertarianism is a political philosophy. Most political parties do not have such a readily identifiable political philosophy. Success in politics requires compromise on policies and priorities. This is harder the more identifiable your philosophy. Indeed many libertarians don’t want to deal with this brute fact of political life and would prefer to remain pure and irrelevant. In the face of a political programme which no-one thinks will ever be a real government programme, party “policies” become critiques of current thinking at best and idle wishful thinking at worst.[/li][li]Finally, it may be so that the candidate gets applause from sound bites. It is easy to get applause from party faithful. It is easy to suggest a lot of benefits from one’s programme. It is harder to convince people that there are net benefits. Whilst many people may think that they have a lot to gain from libertarian ideas, many also have a lot to lose.[/ul][/li]

Stellar analysis, Picmr. Well done.

The LP even bills itself as The Party of Principle

“The Party of Principle” being about as far from “The Party that People Vote For” as is possible. Damn shame that principle is so poorly regarded.


I think it is possible that people, conditioned now for several generations to expect political favor in exchange for their vote, fear achieving anything by their own volition and wits. Most of the hypotheticals that I am presented reflect that fear. They all boil down to “what happens if I fail?”

Last time Ted Kennedy was up for reelection (six years ago, as he is now facing the formality of another election), the best reason many could come up with for voting for him was that due to his experience he could get more federal money spent in our state. I think the people that used this line of reasoning knew how dumb it was because that year or two years later (I can’t recall) they voted in a term limits bill.

That election really showed me what the motivations of the people in this country really are, if only because they were more open about it. From what I could tell, the worst that anyone could dig up on Kennedy’s opponent was that he had some connection with Staples, which didn’t provide medical insurance to its part-time workers. I don’t recall anyone looking for dirt on Kennedy, as that whole vehicular homicide thing is pretty well known, and no one cared even at the time.

In my opinion, the political atmosphere of 1994 and the strength of the opposing candidate made it such that there was actually a threat to Kennedy, and various special interests resorted to providing unusually overt demonstrations of the way the system works. It worked, but hopefully I am not the only one whose cynicism was hardened by their actions.

Libertarianism involves taking personal responsibility for you decisions, life, etc.

This is not a quality found in great abundance in the U.S. body politic.

I’m amazed that they get as many votes as they do.

Damn you, you let it out. I’d be surprised if we get even 1% now. Some people just can’t keep a secret…

As a non-Libertarian, I have a different take on it: namely, I agree that Libertarianism is the best political philosophy—for a perfect world. If individuals and societies were all doing everything they most meant and wanted to do anyway, then complete liberty and defense of individual rights would truly be all we’d need. This unfortunately not being the case, I think a Libertarian government in real life would end up doing a lousy job of promoting the liberty and wellbeing of its citizens. And I think that a lot of other voters agree with me.

Whoops! Sorry. uhh, uhh

Ok–Libertarianism is about getting as much swag from the gummit as possible. Cash, jobs, highway projects, school vouchers, tax breaks, confiscated drugs, you name it. (To paraphrase P.J. O’Rouke) Vote Libertarian and you’ll be farting through silk.

Better, Waterj2? May we can ratchet the percentage up 5-6%

mebbie all the people who voted for libertarianism are under age?:slight_smile:

I wasn’t really looking for a debate on Libertarianism, but more of a discussion of the electoral process, the effects of big money, inertia, and other things that seem to drive politics.

I think it’s amazing that the Libertarians showed so well on the Internet, yet do absolutely nothing in the general elections. And we’re not talking about a small group here - something like 75 million people regularly use the Internet. Even back in the last general election, there were 20 million people on the net, and EVERY internet poll and mock election showed the Libertarians doing extremely well. I thought they were going to get at least 5-7% of the vote last time. And I think they got something like 1.5%, which is an incredibly low number - in fact, it’s lower than their historical average. The main reason for that was probably Perot, who siphoned away a lot of the ‘none of the above’ voters.

Since the Reform party has completely marginalized itself this year, will the Libertarians do better?

Sure, dhanson, but how many of the Internet Libertarians actually voted in the real-life elections? As Asmodean suggested, maybe a lot of the mock-election respondents were underage, or maybe there is a correlation between the somewhat head-in-the-clouds idealism of Libertarian philosophy and a disinclination for participating in the inevitable compromises of actual political life.

While there are undoubtedly many people who have looked at libertarianism and come to the conclusions that Kimstu has, somehow I don’t think that the 99% of the voters that voted against the Libertarian Party has done so. I think that far more people than would admit it really vote on the basis of what a candidate will do for them. Very few people think the Libertarian Party is going to give them a larger share of government largesse.

Not that this explains the discrepancy either, but it does come closer than the preposterous notion that a large segment of the population has actually looked and evaluated the Libertarian Party’s platform.

A factor I was hoping someone would mention is the democratizing aspect of the internet. On the 'net, the various parties have about equal official representation. It doesn’t cost millions to get your message out. There is no bottleneck of a handful of TV networks that filter and control access to information.

So the big question is - Is the fact that Libertarians only get 1.5% of the vote a good indicator of the real sentiment of the country, or is more due to the fact that Libertarians don’t have big money, huge networks of campaigners, and a nationwide communications system that broadcasts their every utterance, as they do for the Republicans and Democrats?

What have the Libertarians done about getting elected to local, state, and Congressional offices? Americans rarely elect someone President in one fell swoop these days–Clinton was a governor; Bush was vice president, and a whole bunch of things before that; Reagan was a governor; Ford was vice president, a congressman before that–and besides, he was never elected anyway; Nixon had served as vice president and in Congress; Johnson was another vice president, and had been a Senator before that; Kennedy had been a U.S. Representative and a Senator…you have to go all the way back to Eisenhower to find someone whose political career started with the Presidency–and even he was a big-time general. I think any third party should try to elect some people to state legislatures and so on, work their way up to Congress and senatorial and gubernatorial positions–then they can field a presidential candidate who people won’t respond to by saying “Who?” I don’t know how much the Libertarians have been trying this–I’m not a Libertarian myself–but I note the original question seems to focus exclusively on vote totals in presidential elections.

A few points in answer to the OP, by someone who’s a libertarian (small-L sort, not a registed one) but rarely votes that way. Some of these have already been brought out, in one form or another.

[li]Most people don’t really look into the issues themselves–they rely on the predigested presentations, complete with bias added, of broadcast news. Those who read their newspapers carefully are the well-informed ones…and the newspapers generally only present the same old Democrat/Republican stuff.[/li]
[li]Votes for third parties are seen more as messages to the Ds and Rs than actual votes for a candidate. But such messages aren’t effective for the current election–they are more for subsequent elections. A lot of people prefer to have a voice in thiselection, and thus hold their noses and vote for the D or R they see as the lesser evil. Otherwise, the greaterevil might win.[/li]
[li]In the same vein as #2, a vote for the Libertarians is not a clear message to anybody. In this election, a vote for Nader is a signal to the Democrats–move left, or else. Likewise, a vote for Buchanan is a signal to the Republicans–move right, or else. But the Libertarians are neither Left nor Right nor Center–they are something of a hybrid, and thus not an effective signal to the major parties.[/li]
[li]Sadly, I believe the majority of people in this country are uncomfortable with the idea of complete personal freedom for others–they think they should have some say over the matter, always presented as being on behalf of something else (the children, the unborn, public safety, public morals, etc.).[/li]
[li]And, yes, the lack of money and exposure results in less votes…which results in less money and exposure…which results in less votes… The experience of the Reform Party in 1992–and, to a lesser extent, in 1996–shows how much clout adequate funding can bring.[/li][/ul]

I think the situation is unfortunate…and yes, I realize that I help perpetuate it every time I cast a vote for a D or R. I’m not happy with that…but my other option is to try and bail out the ocean with a bucket.

MEBuckner said:

This depends on the area. Around here (Central Pennsylvania), there were Libertarian candidates for Centre County Commissioner last year. Centre County is the home of Penn State University, which you might think would make it a fertile place for the Libertarians…but I don’t believe either one received 500 votes. But at least they gave it a shot.

> I don’t know how much the Libertarians have been trying this [getting elected to lower offices]

Well, the party has elected hundreds of candidates around the country, mostly at the local level, but also a few in state legislatures. They have candidates for U.S. Congress in many districts, as well as governor & various state offices. As far as why run a Presidential candidate, I think the idea is that that generates some publicity & new members even if the candidate doesn’t get many votes. It’s true that Harry Browne has never been elected to another office, but neither have Nader, Buchanan, Perot, etc.

The best reason the party doesn’t get more votes is lack of exposure. They get more coverage now than in the past, but many people have never heard of the party or have no idea what its views are. Sure, some people understand the message & reject it because they disagree, but many more just haven’t heard enough to have an opinion. A lot of people seem to think there are only two Presidential candidates this year when there are actually at least five on many state ballots.

A few years ago here a guy ran as a Libertarian for state legislature & got over 1/4 (not 1/4 of 1%!) of the votes, which wasn’t bad for a first-timer running against a guy who had held that seat for several terms.