No, that’s not a real tweet, or a real scenario — not yet, anyway.
As horrifying as that hypothetical Twitter scenario may seem to an increasingly sweaty cluster of good ole Republicans, it’s not out of the realm of possibility in the 50-car-pileup that is the 2016 election cycle.
The Libertarian ticket, headlined by former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson and his running mate, former Governor of Massachusetts Bill Weld, is attempting to claw to the top of said 50-vehicle abomination after decades of being forced to dawn the equivalent of a political invisibility cloak.
Long-derided as an impractical third-party option, name brand politicians have even started flirting with the idea of endorsing the duo of Johnson and Weld. In early August, local Congressman Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, made shadowy allusions that he would formally favor Johnson over the Republican Party’s unlikely presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Former governors and Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have also winked at Libertarian endorsements, but stopped short of making official announcements.
It’s uncharted recognition for a homegrown party that is younger than many of its most prominent affiliated candidates — the Libertarian Party was officially conceived on Dec. 11, 1971 in Colorado Springs.
Libertarian Party leaders and political pundits alike are facing questions that even just last year were more likely to be followed by a shrug than a serious response. They’re questions like: Is 2016 the year Libertarians — a party tied to the unabashed pursuit of liberty, small government and the free market — shed their shackles of political damnation and make a run for more accepted pastures? Do Libertarians have enough magnetism to lure away disenchanted Democrats and Republicans who are repulsed by Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton? Will the decades-old chip on their shoulders embolden or curse them? Could Libertarians actually, like, win?
Maybe, but probably not.
That seems to be the overarching consensus of both Libertarian Party leaders and recent party converts like Sarah Arnold, a political strategist who recently switched her affiliation from Republican to Libertarian.
“Being realistic, I don’t think they’ll probably win any statewide elections this year, and that includes the state legislature,” says Arnold, who correctly predicted about 97 out of 100 national and statewide races in 2012. “But it’s an opportunity for (Libertarians) to profile themselves and say there is an alternative … we’ll see what happens down the road.”
While the current political landscape, one riddled with a general distaste for finger-pointing folks seeking to hold public office, provides a unique chance for Libertarians to vault into the mainstream conversation, to leap into talk of political victory is still premature, according to Jeff Orrok, chair of the Arapahoe County Libertarian Party and former chair of the statewide party.
“I think we could achieve major-party status in Colorado in the early 2020s,” Orrok says. “Maybe 2022 if we work really hard.”
To achieve major-party status in Colorado, a political party must put forth a candidate for governor who receives at least 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote. The last Libertarian candidate who ran for governor of Colorado, Matthew Hess, received about 1.9 percent of the vote, which translates to winning the favor of about 38,000 registrants, according to election results tabulated by Politico.
There were about 35,000 registered Libertarians in Colorado, or about 0.98 percent of the state’s population of registered voters, in October, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
But achieving major-party status and winning elections has never been the primary interest of the Libertarian Party, which party leaders often refer to as “The LP.” However quixotic, leaders say that the party has largely rebuked the goal of winning elections or placing registered Libertarians in elected offices. Instead, all the party wants is more freedom.
“The founders of the party didn’t care that people get elected, what they cared about was getting more freedom,” says Jay North, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Colorado. “It’s very different from what the other parties consider wins. They want elections. We want freedom.”
So instead of shooting for a victory this year, the party is looking for exposure. North says that The LP is merely aiming to use the presidential contest as a way to grab the public’s attention and steer it toward libertarian principles.
“The presidential campaign turns heads, it doesn’t turn hearts,” he says.
Ultimately, the goal is to get Johnson a coveted spot alongside Trump and Clinton in one of three officially sanctioned, televised debates. However, there are several stiff hurdles standing in Johnson’s way before he sits in front of a moderator at the first presidential debate, which is scheduled to take place at Hofstra University in New York on Sept. 28.
In order to appear on a nationally televised debate stage, a candidate must: Meet the constitutional requirements to vote (i.e. be at least 35 years old), appear on the ballot in enough sates to give them a mathematical chance of gathering the required 270 Electoral College votes to win the general election, and, finally, have the support of at least 15 percent of the electorate in five national polls pre-selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Johnson checks the first two boxes — the Libertarian Party currently has ballot access in 39 states, which would be enough to secure a majority in the Electoral College — and is inching toward checking the fifth, most elusive, polling requirement.
Real Clear Politics, which takes the average of several national polls, has Johnson claiming, on average, about 9 percent of the electorate. Johnson’s poll numbers top out at about 12 percent in about half a dozen national polls, including FOX News, CBS News and IBD/TIPP.
Getting Johnson on a presidential debate stage would be a “game changer” for the party, according to Lily Tang Williams, a small-business owner running as the Libertarians’ candidate in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet, Republican nominee Darryl Glenn and Green Party candidate Arn Menconi. Williams says that exposing Johnson, and in turn The LP, to a national television audience could help sway a portion of the American electorate that is simply unaware that the Libertarian Party exists.
“Lots of Americans are Libertarians in their hearts, they just don’t know about (the party),” Williams says. “This is an exciting option this year.”
Even if Johnson manages to sneak up some 5 percentage points by the middle of September, Orrok is worried that the CPD will finagle another requirement that would prohibit Johnson from appearing beside Trump and Clinton on a debate stage.
“They may say, ‘Oh, let’s move the goal post,’” Orrok says. “I’m a little worried that that’s going to happen.”
Garnering media attention has long been a thorn in The LP’s side, according to Orrok, who says that he’s become accustomed to receiving a chilly treatment from news organizations since he joined the party in 1991.
“Underreported really is an understatement,” he says. “It seems that a lot of media goes out of their way to actively ignore the Libertarian Party, and that’s very discouraging.”
That’s why the party has largely relied on man-on-the-street recruitment efforts, such as booths at events and organized happy hours, to let people know that there is an option beyond the Democratic and Republican tickets. Those intimate strategies also act to rectify pre-conceived notions of the archetypical Libertarian, who is often depicted as something of a marijuana-loving, gun-wielding cowboy.
“We’re not the old, traditional Libertarians people have in their minds,” Williams says. “People think we are all stoners and we only care about drugs. We’re not and we don’t.”
This year, the state party has been bringing their booth and quiz materials to new venues — places that are seen as magnets for young or soon-to-be voters. This summer, the party has set up shop at the Wetsern Conservative Summit, the Tanner Gun Show, the Vans Warped Tour, and is soon headed to Riot Fest, a three-day-long concert in Denver.
It’s at these events that party officials have met voters like Laura Lundberg of Pueblo, a former Republican who switched her party affiliation to Libertarian earlier this year after becoming increasingly disillusioned with the current election cycle.
“I got a little frustrated,” Lundberg said beside the LP booth at the Vans Warped Tour. “It seems like both of the parties are basically the same nowadays … I just got so tired of it, and I just thought that the Republican Party is doing such a bad job of managing themselves and keeping organized, so I switched.”
Formerly a Rand Paul supporter, Lundberg said that she expects to vote for Johnson this fall. Libertarian Party leaders encourage voters like Lundberg to take the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz” a roughly 10-question exam that attempts to gauge people’s political leanings.
“I think it’s interesting because a lot of people don’t really know where they fall, so to kind of have those short tlittle questions — it consolidates everything,” says Ashley Keller, a contract engineer from Englewood who also took the bijou test at the Warped Tour. “It’s interesting, and it’s quick.”
Currently a registered Democrat, Keller said that she plans on voting for Johnson this fall. She originally supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders earlier in the election. Despite the ongoing and oncoming wave of the country’s Lundbergs and Kellers, Libertarian leaders like Orrok are wary of claiming that 2016 will be the seminal Libertarian moment.
“I do see the growth rate accelerating,” Orrok says. “It’s a good five or six times what it was 10 years ago. I’m cautiously optimistic.”