After Libertarians reject RFK Jr., what does success look like for third-party candidates?

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They booed former President Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who currently leads in polling in some swing states. They rejected Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the independent candidate who is polling at 15% in some polls.

Instead, at its convention over the weekend, the Libertarian Party selected a little-known former congressional candidate, Chase Oliver, who is hoping they can get to 2% of the popular vote on Election Day.

Turns out that Libertarians are motivated by the ultrasmall-government mindset that leads them to be Libertarians as opposed to an uncomfortable alliance to benefit Trump or help Kennedy get on a debate stage.

A match with Kennedy made some sense, at least on paper. Libertarians currently have ballot access in 38 states. Kennedy is currently on the ballot in six, although he promises to be on more by Election Day.

But the idea of simply placing Kennedy atop the Libertarian Party ticket to marry his momentum with their organization left Kennedy with an embarrassing loss at the Libertarian Party convention in Washington. Kennedy did not even advance out of the first round of voting.

Neither did Trump, who could arguably appeal to some Libertarians with his anti-government rhetoric. After his address, Trump was barred from taking part in the nominating process because his campaign failed to fill out the proper paperwork.

Where does Kennedy’s support come from?

Kennedy’s politics are unique, melding his history as an environmental crusader, his deeply held belief in conspiracy theories and his notable vaccine skepticism. These views are not necessarily very Libertarian.

He is at odds with his own running mate, Nicole Shanahan, the ex-wife of a Google co-founder and a top benefactor of the campaign. Kennedy and Shanahan disagree on both abortion policy and Middle East policy.

Among those who didn’t vote for Biden or Trump in 2020 – including both those who supported another candidate and those who didn’t vote at all – Kennedy got the support of 37% in CNN’s poll conducted by SSRS in April. Trump got the backing of 30% of these voters who either opted for a major party alternative or simply didn’t vote. Biden got just 12%.

Kennedy may well take more support from Trump than from Biden, but not by a lot, according to a recent analysis by CNN’s Harry Enten (watch it below). As evidence, Enten pointed to Quinnipiac University polling that asked Kennedy supporters who they would support in a two-way matchup. About half – 51% – said they would support Trump in a two-way matchup, compared with 37% who said they would pick Biden.

In a written analysis, Enten points to polling that suggests many of Kennedy’s current supporters are not yet familiar with many of his most notable positions, including on vaccines. Support for third-party candidates has a tendency to flag closer to Election Day.

The recent high-water mark is Ross Perot, who got 19% of the vote in 1992.

The last third-party candidate to win a state and get Electoral Votes was George Wallace, who won Southern states in 1968. The only third-party candidate to outperform a major party candidate was former President Teddy Roosevelt, who outpolled Republicans after he failed to get their nomination in 1912 and then ran as a third-party candidate. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won that election.

What are Libertarians aiming for?

While Kennedy is polling better than recent third-party or independent candidates, most of them barely register. If Oliver can reach 2% in the popular vote, that would be better than the Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen in 2020 but still far short of Gary Johnson’s 3.28% of the popular vote in 2016.

CNN’s Aaron Pellish was at the Libertarian convention. When I asked him why there was so much opposition to Kennedy and Trump, Pellish sent me these distinct thoughts:

First and foremost, Libertarian opposition to Trump and Kennedy starts with fundamental disagreements on policy. Despite both candidates calling for the US to reduce its involvement in foreign conflicts, many Libertarians feel Trump and Kennedy don’t go far enough to prevent wars globally. Many Libertarians also support eliminating the Federal Reserve and oppose the government taxing citizens, extreme measures neither Trump nor Kennedy endorsed in their remarks at the convention.

Several Libertarians I spoke to were frustrated by what they viewed as attempts by both candidates to pander to party members for votes in November.

A few convention attendees linked Kennedy and Trump to Bob Barr, the former GOP congressman who ran as the Libertarian presidential nominee in 2008, and to Bill Weld, the former Republican Massachusetts gov. who ran alongside Gary Johnson as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee. Both Barr and Weld left the Libertarian Party after losing their respective elections.

But the memory of past politicians who used the party for their own gain without fully committing to Libertarian values appeared to undergird the resentment some Libertarians held for the two interlopers.

The inverse comparison is Ron Paul, who ran for president as a Libertarian in the 1980s but found greater success when he ran as a Libertarian-leaning Republican. Paul did not – and never was going to – get the Republican nomination, but he made a calculated decision that he could more effectively influence the policy conversation from within a major party.

Now Kennedy’s campaign, and the super PAC that supports it, will have to continue the slog of getting on ballots in enough states to make a mark on the election.

The Green Party is the only third party that is consistently on the ballot in all 50 states. It will not officially select a nominee until July. Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee in 2012 and 2016, is seen as a likely bet. The best recent election for the Green Party came in 2000, when Ralph Nader won more than 2% of the vote and arguably kept Al Gore, the Democrat, from winning Florida and the presidency.

Less than 2% can sway an election

The Republican consultant who orchestrated George W. Bush’s campaigns, Karl Rove, notes in The Wall Street Journal that the Green Party candidate in 2016, Stein, got more votes than Trump’s margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He concludes Stein arguably cost the Democratic ticket, led by Hillary Clinton, the election.

The same thing may have happened in 2020, Rove argues, when the Libertarian’s Jorgensen got less than 2% of the national vote but exceeded Biden’s margin of victory in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.

Those stats are true, but Rove’s assessment may be flawed. Johnson, the Libertarian candidate in 2016, outperformed Stein in each of those states Rove mentioned. Trump won anyway. The election reform advocacy group FairVote has compiled data on recent third-party candidates here.

But rather than focus on the relatively few people who turn out for a third-party candidate, why not look at the large number of people who don’t take part in elections at all?

The 2020 presidential election won by Biden had the highest turnout of any presidential election since 1900. But only about two-thirds – 66% – of eligible voters turned out to vote, according to an analysis by Pew Research Center, although turnout was higher in some states than others.

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