A Libertarian Analysis of the 2002 Colorado Elections
by Ari Armstrong, November 10, 2002
It was a bipolar year for the Libertarian Party of Colorado. Sheriff Bill Masters won with 100% of the vote, since he was so popular nobody wanted to run against him. Bob Dempsey captured 78% of the vote for coroner of the same county (San Miguel). Those victories prove definitively that well-known candidates who are respected in their communities and qualified for their positions can win regardless of party affiliation.
On the whole, though, Libertarians performed little better than they did two or four years ago, with most candidates in three-way races coming in with 2-4% of the vote. (See http://www.lpboulder.org/candidates/results/ for detailed results.)
There were some relative bright spots. According to Mike Seebeck of the state LP board, Coloradans cast a total of 419,370 votes for Libertarian candidates this year, up from around 343,000 total votes in 2000.
Margaret Denny earned nearly 37% of the vote against a scandal-tainted Republican incumbent. Her campaign didn't pick up steam until a couple weeks out from the election. Randal Morgan ran for Arapahoe county commission in a three-way race and pulled 3% of the vote, which indicates many residents of the county voted for Denny because they thought she'd do a better job than her opponent, not because there's an especially strong libertarian streak there. Most other Libertarians in two-way races earned around 15-20% of the vote, which suggests an additional 20% or so of the populace was actually swayed to vote for Denny. As state chair John Berntson put it in a post-election e-mail, "The voters can be moved." Of course, this means Libertarians aren't convincing such voters in other races, even though the voters are paying some attention.
Jeff McQueen pulled 9% in a three-way race for state senate -- not too bad for a third-party candidate. Biff Baker pulled 2-4 times the votes of other Colorado Libertarian candidates for U.S. Congress, coming in with 6%. He campaigned hard and spent some money on the race. My sense is that Baker was qualified for the position but he never really developed a strong campaign team or strategy.
The Stanley Fizzle
I recently wrote of "The Stanley Factor." Pollsters thought Rick Stanley might cost Allard the race by pulling more votes from the Republican than from the Democrat. One pollster said, "Maybe the whole universe tilts on Rick Stanley." But the Stanley Factor turned into the Stanley Fizzle.
With 99.5% of precincts reporting, Stanley came in fourth place with 20,567 votes, 159 votes behind Douglas "Dayhorse" Campbell of the American Constitution Party (9news.com). That's about 1.5% of the total 1,387,305 votes cast in the race. Combined, third-party candidates pulled 48,380 votes (including those cast for independent John Heckman), or 3.5%.
What's stunning is that Stanley himself boasted he's received more press coverage than any other Libertarian candidate in history. I think the claim is true for Colorado candidates within an election cycle. Sheriff Masters has earned more press over the last few years nation-wide, and Carla Howell has earned a lot of ink in Massachusetts. Stanley picked up many times the press coverage that Campbell did, yet he came in a little behind Campbell. (The final few precincts could move Stanley into third place.)
Stanley was also regularly polling 3-5% in the days and weeks leading up to the election. Where did those voters go? Perhaps they answered the poll strategically rather than truthfully in order to put the fear of God into Allard or otherwise express their discontent. Stanley predicted many traditional non-voters would turn out for him and bump up his numbers, but obviously that didn't happen, as it did for Ventura. Stanley predicted just days before the election, "I believe that I will get the largest share/percentage of a National office Campaign, ever for the Lib Party."
The lesson for Libertarians is it's just not true that any press is good press. While Stanley did garner an enormous amount of press for a third-party candidate, most of it was bad press. The media covered Stanley when he said Allard should be tried for treason and hanged, when he forwarded (but did not himself author) racist and violent e-mails, when he said the smiley-face pipe bombs might have been a government conspiracy, and when he got censured by the LPCO board. People don't vote for crazy.
Quarter-page ads ran for Stanley's campaign in the Rocky Mountain News the Saturday before the election, and again in the News and the Denver Post on Monday. Such ads are quite expensive. Unfortunately, the ad contained another silly conspiracy theory that Russia's "interest in democracy and peace was just a ploy to relax the West" until the country can "strike again in a variety of ways." This was just part of a seemingly endless stream of ridiculous conspiracies covering everything from sperm count to jet vapor to the Libertarian Party being "sabotaged" by Republican plants.
The Governor's Race
With the same number of precincts reporting, Ralph Shnelvar earned 19,292 votes out of a total number of 1,336,296, or about 1.4%. Green Ron Forthofer came in third with 30,334 votes, or about 2.3%. The percent of third-party votes is slightly higher than it is in the Senate race with 3.7%.
Interestingly, the governor's race shows about 50,000 fewer votes than the Senate race does. What happened to those votes? Perhaps people just figured Owens was a shoo-in and the race wasn't worth thinking about.
Across the country, Green candidates generally do better than Libertarians. For instance, the Green in Massachusetts got roughly triple Carla Howell's numbers, even though she ran one of the most high-profile Libertarian races ever. No Green ran in the Senate race. Campbell and Stanley ran on roughly comparable platforms: both said they want to return to limited, Constitutional government.
However, it could be the case that roughly the same number of voters will cast a "protest" third-party vote, regardless of what those parties are. What would have happened if Stanley had run against only a Green and the two old-party candidates? In a three-way? What percent would Shnelvar have received in a three-way? These are interesting questions, but difficult to answer. I suspect the "protest" vote is rather large, though. (Campbell got third place on the ballot, and his name appears with "Dayhorse" in it, which automatically makes his name more visible. How many votes did that pull?)
Both Stanley and Shnelvar went after the gun votes, and neither got them, even though both Allard and Owens are squishy on the issue. (The NRA backed both Republicans.) Shnelvar went after the pot-smoker vote, but apparently they either didn't vote or voted Green.
Libertarians should not be overly disturbed by the relative Green success. The Green vote is split two ways between the Green Party and the Democratic Party. The libertarian vote is split three ways among the LP, the Republican Party, and conscientious non-voting. Greens are democratic socialists, while some libertarians believe voting is immoral. Also, I think there is a greater divide between the Greens and the Democrats than there is between the Libertarians and the Republicans. Indeed, I know some Republican elected officials who are more libertarian than some LP candidates. There are also some Republicans who are closer to Greens or Democrats, of course. But in general my sense is libertarians are more likely to vote Republican than socialists are to vote Democratic.
Results of Campaigning
Shnelvar's theory is that it doesn't make a great deal of difference how much campaigning a third-party candidate does: the results will be the same. (I keep reminding him it's also important to keep the issues alive, regardless of the electoral turnout.) It's difficult to quarrel with Shnelvar's theory, looking at the basic numbers. In general, Libertarian candidates pull 1-2% in state-wide and federal races and 3-5% in lower-level races. Biff Baker campaigned hard for Congress and pulled 6%, but there was some dissatisfaction with the Republican incumbent. If Libertarian candidates had been placed randomly on the ballot, the vote totals would likely have been pretty much the same for all but a couple races.
But even the most robust Libertarian campaigns typically spend a tiny fraction of what the Big Boys spend. LP candidates are also typically less qualified. To my knowledge, none of our upper-level candidates had ever served in elected office before, and that does seem to matter to the public. The LP ran only a handful of candidates for local office. The Ds and Rs almost always run people with prior political experience for higher office. The exception was Rollie Heath, who got the nomination by default and got trounced.
Brand name counts. Libertarians are unproven. One reason national chains of restaurants and retail stores exist is that brand name offers value to consumers. It offers reliability. The LP doesn't have a recognized or trusted brand name, and people are very reluctant to vote for any non-D or R candidate. Even Denny got less than 37% of the vote in a two-way race against a clearly incompetent incumbent.
To win, an LP candidate must trump brand-name support with personal service. Bill Masters could run with any party and win. So could Bob Dempsey. Their communities are relatively small, and they're well-known and highly respected. Similarly, Carol Hill won a city council seat in Leadville, a small town where she has been active in community life for a long time.
Strategy for Results
It's fine if the LP runs candidates for higher office, but only as an educational effort. No candidate above the county level should spend much money to campaign. They should give speeches, fill out surveys, and be as active as possible, but they shouldn't spend much money. There could be exceptions, of course. If a wealthy individual, celebrity, or established public servant wants to run, that changes the dynamics.
If the LP wants to start winning, it needs to start promoting lower-level offices. One way to break through brand-name reluctance is to show a history of successful public service.
The LP should run as many state legislative races as possible, again to keep the libertarian message alive. LP members should stop spreading money thinly over many campaigns. Instead, every election cycle the LP should pick one or two races and concentrate funds and efforts there. Of course the candidate must be strong. Then demographics trump. A two-way race against a weak incumbent might be possible to win, as might a three-way race with an even D-R split.
It seems likely a majority of votes for LP candidates would otherwise go Republicans. Thus, it might make sense for the LP to not work so hard to put a candidate in tight a race against a relatively good Republican. But this will apply to a handful of state legislative races every cycle at most, where the demographics are especially tight and the Republican is especially pro-freedom. After all, libertarians do want to pull up a seat to the legislative table come January. At the same time, Libertarians should work especially hard to ruin the chances of squishy Republicans.
The LP should actually try to win a state house race. This will entail spending at least as much money in the race as the Ds and Rs. To break through brand-name voting, the LP candidate will have to send targeted mail, get out the vote, and otherwise do a spectacular job in the race. Then, just maybe, he or she will be competitive. Even one Libertarian in the state legislature would have a great deal of influence.
There are a lot of other things libertarians can do besides run for office. For instance, they can run pro-freedom ballot initiatives. One possible initiative could remove the party affiliation of all candidates on the ballot and randomly place all candidates on the ballot. There's FIJA. There's drug policy reform. Even though Carla Howell pulled only 1% of the vote, her initiative to eliminate the Massachusetts income tax got over 45% of the vote, quite a satement. There's sometimes a disconnect between support of libertarian causes and support of Libertarian candidates.
Many Libertarians have thought about run-off voting. There are two advantages to run-off voting: people would no longer feel they're "wasting their votes," and Republicans would stop getting angry at Libertarians. There are two disadvantages to run-off voting: LP candidates could no longer win with 34% of the vote, and Republicans would stop getting angry at Libertarians. (Plus, while initial vote totals might be higher for Libertarians, there's no guarantee the media would report anything but the final vote totals or cover LP candidates.)
American politics is based on the winner-take-all system. Such a system is built for two parties, and it creates an almost insurmountable obstacle for third parties with the "wasted vote" perception. I do not think any radical departure from this system will ever happen. If it were possible, Libertarians could advocate some kind of proportional system in which the LP got a percentage of state legislators based on the vote totals. But this is so unlikely I think efforts are better spent trying to get one or two state legislators elected each cycle in the current system.
Some have suggested the way for LP candidates to win is to dump the libertarian platform. That wouldn't work, because then people would just migrate to whatever randomly selected party. The LP came into existence for one purpose: to advance libertarian ideas and policies. Electoral success is a means toward that end. As soon as electoral success becomes the primary goal of the LP at the expense of principles, the party will no longer deserve the support of any libertarian.
Others have suggested libertarians disband the LP and work within one of the old parties. It's interesting to speculate what might have happened had the LP never been formed and libertarians had tried to change the Republican Party from within. The modern libertarian movement existed for decades prior to the formation of the LP, and the LP was formed largely in reaction to Nixon's anti-market policies.
What's certain is that libertarians shouldn't treat the LP as if it were a religion. It's a political strategy, nothing more. Nor should people remain attached to the LP because of its social functions. If the LP were disbanded, a libertarian community could still thrive. Libertarians could form something like the "Liberty Club," an organized movement that works within the older parties. In fact, Ron Paul and Penn Pfiffner have been involved in relatively pro-liberty sub-groups of Republicans.
I think libertarians should at least seriously consider the option of running for office as Republicans or Democrats. However, I also think the LP can continue to be a valuable tool, especially given the infrastructure already exists. The LP can elect a few candidates and punish the worst Republicans. If the state LP could elect just one state legislator, that would be a major accomplishment.
Quite a few libertarians are taking the Free State Project seriously. I'm not sure if it can work, but it's an interesting idea. Of course, other libertarians are convinced they shouldn't work within the political system at all. Instead, they believe education and individual action is the way to go.
I'm of the mind that each libertarian should take his or her best guess as to the most effective strategy, find a niche, and go for it. If something proves to be especially successful, many others will follow.
The rallying cry for many libertarians is, "Liberty in my lifetime." I think that's possible, but not guaranteed. If it doesn't work out, at least we can make marginal positive changes and have fun doing it. And if we keep pushing, someday, somewhere, somehow, we just might get a major breakthrough.