Comparing Gary Johnson to Past Libertarian Party Nominees

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He has the most executive experience and the potential to win votes from conservatives and liberals.

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Over the weekend the Libertarian Party decided that Gary Johnson would be its presidential nominee. He's likely to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. And he's arguably the strongest candidate they've ever run.

A quick history:

The Libertarian Party first ran a presidential candidate in 1972. John Hospers, a philosophy professor, appeared on the ballot in only two states, but managed to win one electoral vote thanks to a Republican delegate who parted ways with Richard Nixon and backed the Libertarian ticket. In so doing, Roger McBride became a Libertarian Party hero -- and its presidential candidate in 1976. A Harvard trained lawyer, he made the ballot in 32 states, but won no electoral votes.

Ed Clark was the Libertarian Party nominee in 1980. With his running mate, billionaire Charles Koch, he won 1 percent of the popular vote nationwide -- the best a candidate from that party has ever done. Four years later, David Bergland received just .3 percent of the popular vote. And in 1988, Ron Paul was the Libertarian nominee for president. With 9 years in the U.S. House of Representatives on his resume, he was easily the most experienced candidate the Libertarian Party had run. Around the same time, the racist newsletters most recently raised during the present campaign were going out under Paul's name.

In 1992, Paul endorsed Republican Pat Buchanan for president, while the Libertarian Party ran Andre Marrou, who'd served one term in the Alaska House of Representatives, and won just .28 percent of the popular vote.

Harry Browne headed up the Libertarian Party ticket in 1996 and 2000. An advertising executive turned entrepreneur and politician, he authored the 1970 book How You Can Profit From The Coming Devaluation. "Who will bail out the United States of America when it collapses, as it must, because of the deficit spending that keeps increasing?" the promotional copy asked. "The Collapse MUST come. It is inevitable. Our fondest hope has to be that it does not come during our lifetimes, so that only our children and grandchildren will suffer because of it."

Browne died in 2006. Well played, sir.

In 2004, Michael J. Badnarik, a software engineer and politician, won a close race for the Libertarian Party nomination only to earn even fewer votes in the general election than Ralph Nader, who had declined in popularity after the 2000 election debacle.

In 2008, the Libertarian Party nominated former congressman Bob Barr despite certain heresies: a former drug warrior, he voted for the USA Patriot Act, backed the invasion of Iraq, and authored the Defense of Marriage Act. In a December 2003 profile, Jesse Walker traced the beginning of his conversion. "In his eight years in Congress, Barr was one of Washington's loudest critics of the federal government's abuses of power, taking the lead in investigating the raid on Waco and in opposing Bill Clinton's efforts to undermine due process in terrorism cases," he wrote in Reason magazine. "Since leaving Congress, Barr has taken an advisory post with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and started writing a column for Atlanta's alternative weekly Creative Loafing -- neither ordinarily a haven for Republicans. While many on the right have fallen behind the Bush administration even as it betrays their purported principles, Barr represents another set of conservatives' growing discomfort with the administration's erosion of individual liberty." Barr won .4 percent of the vote in his presidential run.  

And that brings us back to Gary Johnson.

A former governor of New Mexico, he was re-elected by that state's voters, left office popular after two terms, and therefore has the most executive experience of any Libertarian Party presidential nominee. He can also cite the state he ran as evidence that nothing radical happens when he's put in charge. An economic conservative and social liberal, he represents a new direction for a party that has long wrestled with its paleo-libertarian wing. And yet he too is certain to lose on Election Day, as third-party candidates in American presidential elections do. The question is whether he can match his party's 1980 high-water mark and win 1 percent or more of the vote, and whether he might win even more in the key swing state of New Mexico, where voters already know and have cast ballots for him.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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