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US Election Provides an Opportunity, But Little Chance of a Breakthrough for Libertarians

29/06/2016 13:05 | Updated 29 June 2016

The US election is shaping up to be the most divisive in modern history, with the electorate seeing both candidates as equally unpalatable. According to a CNN/ORC opinion poll earlier this month, 57% of the public said they felt negatively about Hillary Clinton, while 59% say they hold unfavourable views about Donald Trump.

The Donald's shortcomings are obvious. He is aggressive, boorish, and has behaved in a way that lacks the gravitas and dignity required to be president. Although he has enthused blue collar Republican primary voters, a significant proportion of the population see his outbursts on immigration and political correctness as pandering to racism. With a business record and personal life that would automatically disqualify most other candidates for office, and a policy platform consisting of little more than absurd slogans, it is no wonder that almost half of voters say they would be embarrassed or afraid if he were to be elected.

Although most commentators expect Clinton to beat Trump by a substantial margin, the prospect has not been greeted with enthusiasm. The presumptive Democratic nominee scores badly on a range of factors that influence voting behaviour, including honesty and likeability. She is loathed by Republicans, distrusted by swing voters and seen as part of an elite that is out of touch with ordinary Americans. The FBI investigation into her email server during her time as Secretary of State continues to rumble on, reinforcing perceptions that she is shifty and unreliable.

Faced with this unedifying choice, more Americans are saying they would be willing to consider a third option in what is traditionally a very difficult political system for candidates outside the two main parties to break through. Current polling suggests that Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, would score 9% and the Green Party's Jill Stein would take 7% of the vote. In 2012, both candidates respectively scored 0.99% and 0.37%.

For the Libertarians in particular, this election offers the prospect of a breakthrough. In Gary Johnson they have a candidate with a proven track record as a capable and competent two term governor of New Mexico. Indeed, with his vice-presidential pick William Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts, the Libertarian ticket has for the first time more executive experience than either the Republican or Democratic nominee. Johnson's pitch - fiscally conservative on the economy, but socially liberal on wedge issues such as drugs, gay marriage and abortion - is attractive for those turned off both by the paucity of Trump's policy solutions and the sense of weariness engendered by the inevitability of another Clinton presidency. Johnson's more measured approach to foreign affairs, expressing sceptism of further American involvement in the Middle East and the neoconservative rhetoric that has formed the mainstay of Republican orthodoxy, also appeals to a public ground down by endless military interventions - but without the conspiracy theory baggage that usually dents the credibility of non-interventionist candidates or the apparent hero worship of authoritarian rulers espoused by Trump. He has the benefit of being articulate, likeable and accomplished, emanating reason and moderation and with a range of political, business and sporting achievements under his belt.

The Johnson campaign is determined to run a serious operation and shed the Libertarians' reputation for kookiness. The key goal is to secure inclusion in the three televised presidential debates - the eligibility criteria requiring a candidate to score greater than 15% in four consecutive national polls. With Johnson's figures hovering around the 9%, 10% or 11% mark, this is theoretically achievable between now and the first debate in September.

However, despite the favourable climate, the odds are that the Libertarians will not be able to capitalise on the sense of disillusionment with the mainstream candidates. Although Clinton and Trump have high unfavourability ratings, most Americans still say they will vote for one or the other. Johnson faces a struggle to be included in many of the benchmark national polls, even before he gets close to the 15% needed to be seen as a major contender. His fundraising efforts will be dwarfed by those of his opponents. The Libertarians have only around 400,000 registered supporters and an even smaller activist base - worse, they retain an innate desire to remain on the political fringes. Following Johnson's acceptance speech at the Libertarian convention in Florida, a candidate for the position of the party's chairmanship took to the stage, stripped down to a thong and started dancing before being booed by delegates and dragged off stage - all streamed live on C-SPAN.

If Johnson does make it into the debates he has the potential to transform the presidential race, but his role will likely be limited to that of a spoiler for Trump. He could potentially leave a longer legacy, giving the Libertarians greater publicity and helping them build their grassroots base for more serious attempts at state office in the years ahead, but even here history does not set an encouraging precedent. Texas billionaire Ross Perot scored highly in 1992 and 1996, being included in both sets of televised debates and taking 18% to become the most successful third party presidential candidate in terms of the popular vote since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. His Reform Party collapsed into acrimony and irrelevance a few years later.

For years the Republicans and Democrats have continued to enjoy an unrivalled political hegemony even when challenged by events that would irrevocably damage or undermine public confidence in their European counterparts. This is testament to the endurance, flexibility and responsiveness of the US political system. However, it also means that, despite the obvious flaws in both major candidates and the biggest opportunity for a breakthrough in twenty years, Americans are likely to decline Johnson's invitation to be libertarian with him in November.

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