The Badnarik Campaign In Perspective
by David F. Nolan, November 11, 2004
The final figures aren't known yet, but it appears that Michael Badnarik received close to 400,000 votes out of about 120 million. This represents a small numerical increase over Harry Browne's 2000 showing (384,429) but a small decrease in percentage (0.33% vs. 0.37%). Thus, for all practical purposes, this time's showing was a repeat of last time's.
On one level, this represents quite an achievement. The Badnarik campaign had to start almost "from scratch" after the Atlanta convention, and had less than half as much money as the Browne 2000 campaign. The election was highly polarized, and perceived as extremely close. As a result, the percentage vote for all third-party candidates was only 0.9% -- the lowest since 1984. Ralph Nader, anointed by the media as "the alternative candidate," saw his vote total plunge to one-sixth of his 2000 showing. At last count, he was ahead of Badnarik by fewer than 25,000 votes, although that could change in either direction.
Clearly, the Badnarik Team did something right. Just "holding our own" in an election like the one just past is admirable. But looking past that, to the bigger picture, there is reason for concern.
The high-water mark for Libertarian Presidential campaigns was set in 1980. Ed Clark received 920,049 votes (1.065%) after spending $3.65 million, including $2 million contributed by Clark's wealthy running mate, David Koch. That was a lot of money in those days. Presidential campaign spending has increased approximately eightfold since then, and Badnarik was outspent by the Republicans nearly 400:1 in 2004.
Since 1980 our fortunes have waxed and waned. The Libertarian vote total has alternately risen and fallen in every succeeding national election, never rising above 500,000, while our percentage has bobbed around between 0.25% and 0.50%. At this point it's hard to believe that we're ever going to break through at the national level until and unless we can attract a "star" candidate.
By "star" I do not mean someone like that tired old sad-sack Ralph Nader. The liberal media may love him, but Ralphie is a nonentity to most Americans. Nor do I mean any of the various Libertarians who have sought our nomination in the past.
At minimum, it will require a candidate like Gary Johnson, the former Governor of New Mexico, who could probably get 5% in a Presidential race. Even better, someone like H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who was at one point reportedly toying with the idea of running on our ticket this year. I do believe that if he had run, Schwarzkopf might possibly have won. Certainly, he could have gotten 15% to 20%.
Of course, any big-name candidate will want to run on his own terms, and I have no idea if Mr. Johnson or General Schwarzkopf is actually very close to being a consistent libertarian. Getting millions of votes would be nice, but they have to be votes for the kind of society our party seeks, or they're meaningless.
Which brings us back to our "stuck under 500,000 votes" dilemma. We can continue to pour time, energy and money into Presidential campaigns as long as we want to, but we should do so with an awareness that we're not going to pose any real threat to the two major parties running candidates like Michael Badnarik, Harry Browne, or even the somewhat better-known Ron Paul. If we view our Presidential campaigns as an exercise in outreach and education, and gauge our efforts and expectations accordingly, we are not likely to be disappointed.
Conversely, if we are not willing to accept that reality, we will do better to depart the Presidential arena and focus on areas where we can have a real impact: local, state and Congressional races, ballot initiatives, and other contests where the playing field is closer to being level.
David F. Nolan was the prime mover behind the formation of the Libertarian Party in 1971. He holds a degree in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his career has included work in publishing, advertising and marketing.
Mr. Nolan was the party's first national chair, and has served at times as editor of LP NEWS, chairman of the Platform Committee, chairman of the By-Laws Committee, and chairman of the Judicial Committee. In 1996, he received the Libertarian Party's first Thomas Jefferson Award, for "Lifetime Achievement" in advancing the cause of liberty.
Aside from his role in founding the LP, Mr. Nolan is best known as the originator of the "Nolan Chart," a two-dimensional map that shows how different political systems relate to one another. This map has largely replaced the old left-right linear political spectrum, and its impact on political thinking led to Mr. Nolan's being selected for inclusion in "2000 Leading Intellectuals of the 20th Century," a reference work published by the International Biographical Centre (Cambridge, England) in 2000.