ORLANDO, Florida — With historically unpopular presidential candidates at the forefront of the two major political parties, Libertarians see an opening.
“The Republicans and Democrats have done the Libertarian Party a huge favor with this,” said Steve Scheetz, 46, a write-in Libertarian running for the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania and a delegate at this weekend’s convention here. The party’s biennial event comes at a point in the presidential race where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have all but locked down their party’s nominations after contentious, long and moneyed primaries that have left the two major parties bruised and divided.
“People are looking at the choices they have and realizing it’s time to vote Libertarian,” alternate delegate John Munchmeyer, 47, said, carrying a large home-made sign that said “Hillary is for sale and Trump is nuts.”
Just after lunch, Libertarian activist Michael Cloud declared 2016 a “tipping point” for the Libertarian Party. “Something strange in the neighborhood,” he said, quoting the catchphrase from the film “Ghostbusters.” He appeared to be implying: Who you gonna call?
And by the numbers, Americans are calling Libertarians. Dues-paying membership is up 30 percent between January and May and voter registration has nearly doubled since 2008. All they need now is a candidate who can make a dent in a presidential race currently led by a member of a political dynasty and a billionaire mogul.
They have such a candidate in the form of former Republican New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson — who ran on a Libertarian ticket in 2012, winning a record $1.2 million votes nationwide. He’s polling in double digits against Clinton and Trump in two polls.
“It is a breakout year for the Libertarians,” Chair of Libertarian Party Nicholas Sawark told MSNBC on Friday morning. “We’re at a position where we now have — or on track to have — ballot access in all 50 states. So every American will have a Libertarian option on their ballot and the two old parties are committed to self-destructing front of us.”
Despite party insiders’ sense that Johnson is the likely nominee, there’s no guarantee he could win a majority of the nearly 1,000 delegates who can still vote as they please. The former Republican isn’t completely in line with the Libertarian movement, and there are plenty of other candidates also running. Austin Petersen, a conservative activist favored by disenchanted far-right Republicans, is another popular choice, and eccentric millionaire and cybersecurity pioneer John McAfee — best known for evading officials in Belize where he was a person of interest in his neighbor’s murder investigation — is a definite wild card.
Insiders say anything goes when you head to multiple ballots, as they have in the past.
If Johnson wins, he’ll encourage the delegates to select former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld as his vice president. If the delegates do that, the pair of two-term governors will have more executive experience than either of the major party candidates.
Then, for the nominee and his vice president, there’s a handful of key thresholds essential to their and the party’s future success.
To rise in the general election, they’ll need to start polling at or above 15 percent: If they can do that in enough polls, they’ll make the general election debate stages — a first for the Libertarian Party, as well as the first time a third-party candidate will have appeared on the stage had since Ross Perot in 1992.
Second, they need to win more than 5 percent in the general election. That would allow the party to qualify for federal election funding, perhaps changing the Libertarian Party’s future forever. While relying on taxpayer dollars is far from the ideal for most Libertarians, there’s a strong understanding that the party needs more visibility and publicity.
“We need publicity,” Sue Spencer, 32, told NBC News. “We need people to say the L word.”