The Libertarian Party is having a moment: they just nominated a candidate who polls in double digits against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Thanks to a bruising primary season that has left both the Democrats and Republicans poised to nominate the most unpopular candidates in history to the top of their respective tickets, there is an unprecedented opening, and appetite, for a viable third-party run.
The Libertarians – who are on track to make the ballot in 50 states and the District of Columbia – hope it can be them. At the Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention over the weekend, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld was selected to be his running mate — after two rounds of voting each.
But the question remains: Is the Libertarian Party ready to go mainstream, and is America ready for it?
“I’m not worried about politically achievable, we’re Libertarians!” vice presidential candidate Thomas Coley declared at during a vice presidential candidate debate to big cheers. It’s a sentiment shared by many in the party, who argue they should emphasize extreme principle and revel in their quirky characters — not move towards more realistic policies and compromise.
During the presidential candidate debate, the room went wild for suggestions of abolishing the Federal Reserve, state-sponsored education, and gun control. Calls for legalizing drugs was another applause line – and the crowd dismissed suggestions that minors should be restricted from accessing narcotics.
“I believe in a world where gay married couples can defend their marijuana fields with submachine guns, aw yeah, baby!” conservative libertarian Austin Petersen said.
“Crystal meth should be as legal as tomatoes,” another candidate, Daryl Perry, declared.
These are hardly the kind of policies a gridlocked Congress seems likely to pass under any new president – and are likely to be met with derision by the public – but they’re nonetheless championed at the party’s national gathering.
And they were far from the party’s most cringeworthy moments.
A candidate for party chair used the carefully-followed rules to request two minutes of speaking time to leave the race. He did so by taking nearly all his clothes off and dancing around. Friends ran across the stage to stick dollar bills in the waistband of his underwear, while the crowd booed for him to leave the stage. The man later said it was a dare, but delegates later approached the microphone to complain about the dance. ”I do not want the world to think that’s what Libertarians are,” one woman said heatedly.
A day earlier, supporters of conservative candidate Austin Petersen loudly suggested that they hire “hookers” to become Libertarian delegates so they could vote for their candidate, mere feet from this reporter. Petersen looked startled.
Meanwhile, debating whether the Libertarian Party’s platform should oppose all forms of government, the delegates battled: Opposing government made them sound a bit crazy, one suggested, while others said it was ideologically pure.
“Our platform should be a mission statement, not a marketing document,” declared one supporter, a Californian man wearing a short leopard print mini-dress, matching parasol, and kitten heels who would only identify himself as Starchild.
“The goal is not to occupy the Oval Office, but to occupy the hearts and minds of American people,” presidential candidate John McAfee told the crowd on Saturday. The eccentric cyber-security millionaire who is a person of interest in a former neighbor’s murder case in Belize, and was asked during a press conference whether or not he had committed that murder.
The choice between making a serious play for the presidency or simply running to make a point is an obstacle between the party and more mainstream standing, and one that sent convention voting into multiple ballot rounds.
It was also a source of contention between the party and Johnson, its eventual nominee, who narrowly lost on the first ballot before winning on the second. There was a strong contingent of the party who spent the time between the two votes chanting “anyone but Gary,” in opposition to Johnson. His Libertarian bona fides (and those of his chosen running mate, former Republican governor William Weld) had been questioned at length throughout the convention.
Johnson, who was a member of the Republican Party when he was governor of New Mexico, was booed during the Saturday debate when he said he’d have signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in government and private property. A crowd member screamed “bull—-” when Johnson voiced support for driver’s licenses to protect citizens from dangerous drivers.
During an address to delegates on Saturday, Johnson pushed back, saying he was “not Republican-lite” and that he was proud to be Libertarian. Still, at Saturday night’s debate, he struggled. The crowd booed when he suggested investing in renewable resources to a room full of apparent climate change skeptics, and when he made the point that eliminating the Federal Reserve — “kill the bank,” as one rival put it — was politically unfeasible, he was met by silence.
Upon his and Weld’s winning ballots, Johnson told reporters he felt he and Weld were the “best message candidates” the Libertarian Party could put forward.
In interviews throughout the weekend, Johnson seemed to understand that it won’t be the party, exactly, he’s bringing into the mainstream, but rather just his ticket.
“This would be a separation from the Libertarian Party, this would be the Johnson campaign organization,” he told NBC News when asked whether the party would be able to lift him through a general election.
But he’s hopeful. If he’s included in the polls, he says, he’ll rise and make the national debate stage (to do that, he’d need to routinely rank at 15 percent in the polls). If he can make the debate stage, then he can bring Libertarian views to the country, he said repeatedly.
“I couldn’t feel any better, I don’t think I’ve ever felt any more nervous in my whole life. Really, there was Everest …but this was maybe equal to that,” remarked the nominee and experienced climber who climbed the Tibetan mountain on a broken leg in 2003.
And was he ready to take on the race, and the unavoidable barbs of Trump who has been accusing Weld of being an alcoholic this week?
“Maybe I’ll have my first drink in 29 years!” Johnson said, a meek attempt at a joke. ”And by the way, no alcoholic here – I quit drinking because of rock climbing. And I - I wasn’t drinking and rock climbing, just the notion of being as good as I could be all the time.”