Strategies for Libertarian Success
by Ari Armstrong
[The following article originally appeared in the January 2000 edition of Colorado Liberty.]
It's none too early for Libertarian candidates to start strategizing for 2000. Of course, campaigning in local, "non-partisan" races such as those for school boards are somewhat more based in personality, so strategies will differ. But those running for state legislature, governor, U.S. congress, and other partisan offices need to figure out how to run successfully *as* Libertarian candidates.
Divide and Conquer
In a typical election, roughly 80% of the population register to vote, and about 50% of those registered cast a vote. In other words, a major-party candidate can win with about 20% support from the populace.
How did Jesse "The Body" Ventura win? He ran against two evenly matched opponents. Ventura probably would have lost a two-way race against either the Republican or the Democrat, but, because the two major parties split the "respectable" vote, Ventura was able to pull off a victory and become governor under Perot's goofy "reform" party.
Assuming a three-way race in which 40% of the populace vote, a Libertarian need win over only 14% of the people to achieve office.
Ventura, of course, has star power. Undoubtedly, many who voted for him didn't care so much about his ideas, but they were drawn to his colorful past as a Navy Seal and professional wrestler. I have yet to meet a Colorado Libertarian with that kind of pizzazz.
Ventura also captured the votes of the youth. By playing a populist tune to a new generation beat, Ventura was able to win over an entire segment of the demos. If Libertarians hope to win office like Ventura did, they too will have to energize the young idealists who are turned off to major-party politics.
Only those Libertarians who pick a race where Republicans and Democrats are evenly divided can reasonably hope to find success by the strategy of divide and conquer.
The Wedge Issue
In the December 1999 issue of *Liberty Magazine*, and in follow-up notes in the January 2000 edition, R.W. Bradford suggests the LP run on a "wedge issue," one "on which people's opinions are strong and that can therefore be used to induce them to abandon their traditional political behavior" (25). Bradford suggests the issue of drug legalization.
Bradford continues, "[Make drug legalization] *the* campaign issue, the central theme of the campaign... If the LP could offer voters a way of making an unequivocal statement for drug legalization enough might vote Libertarian for the party to escape the ignominy of getting less than one percent of the vote" (January p.11).
While Bradford is speaking of national politics, his theory might play well on the state level. A significant minority of the population wants to see drugs legalized, yet neither of the major parties favors that policy.
The strategy might work because, instead of forcing voters to say, "I support drug legalization, AND massive tax cuts, AND privatized education," etc., in order to vote Libertarian, voters would only have to favor the single issue.
Of course, this brings with it potential problems. Say the LP does capture 5% to 10% of the vote -- then what? Are we forever stigmatized as a single-issue party? Will the LP be able to bring into play other pro-freedom ideas?
Another wedge issue might work well in Colorado: gun rights. Bradford explicitly says that issue won't serve as a wedge, because the Republicans share the issue (January p. 6). However, Colorado Libertarians should be able to make it a wedge issue.
Rather than just say, with the Republicans, "We oppose additional restrictions on the right to bear arms and call for present laws to be more stringently enforced," the LP could cry, "We will actively work to win back the gun rights already lost!"
The Republican Party dropped concealed carry after Columbine; the Republican leadership now calls for *more* anti-gun-owner laws such as mandatory storage and expanded background checks. And many gun owners are fighting mad. Governor Bill Owens flippantly told gun owners, "What are you going to do? Vote Democratic?" They *might* vote Libertarian, if the party reaches out to them.
Unfortunately, many gun owners tend to be conservative on such issues as drugs. This is true even though the drug war is a primary cause of gun violence and thus a major impetus in the war against guns. So the LP faces the same problem: how will we move beyond the wedge?
Alternatively, the LP can give up on short-term electoral success and focus on educating the small numbers of people open to libertarian ideas.
Candidates can forget about reaching the masses with watered-down propaganda, can forget about shaking hands and kissing babies, and get down to the brass-tacks of spreading the core libertarian philosophy to a few open-minded individuals.
Under this strategy, the purpose of a candidate is to provide detailed information about libertarian economic and political theory, along with references to our core literature. The purpose is not to win votes, but to reach a few budding intellectuals who will become active members of the libertarian cause. The goal of this strategy is not to win elections, but to win converts with a view to achieving long-range political success.
Regardless of which strategy an LP candidate adopts, Bradford makes one point powerfully clear: "It's time to try something new."