There is a catch-22 that afflicts smaller parties in the American electoral system: Even though a small movement is almost guaranteed to lose a nation-wide presidential race, the disproportionate media attention on the presidential process makes it impossible to avoid. On top of that, they tend to run a range of longshot candidates in congressional and Senate districts wherever such candidates file papers, and can offer only token monetary and organizational support to them. The result is small parties devoting much of their internal debate and resources to choosing a presidential nominee and never really making a mark on the nitty-gritty of constituency-by-constituency congressional contests.
True to form, the Libertarian Party has spent most of this cycle talking about who its presidential nominee will be. Ultimately though, the role of party standard-bearer is simply to raise the profile of the organization and to hopefully get a bit more attention next time. A strong lead spokesperson is definitely important, but it is not enough.
So how do the Libertarians move from also-ran to having a presence in the corridors of power? There are four things it has to do.
- Run fewer, more focused races
First the Libertarians need to stop acting like a national party with national ambitions, at least in the electoral fight. Sure, keep having a presidential candidate and try to get them on the main debate stage, but the real fight will be in a few carefully chosen battles in marginal seats. In this, the Libertarian Party should consider how smaller parties succeed in first-past-the-post (FPP) elections in other countries.
Take the UK, for example, where the two-party dominance of Conservatives and Labour has traditionally been leavened with the presence of the much smaller Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have managed to maintain a small but persistent presence in the Parliament by holding to a distinctive ideology and focusing on a limited number of seats where they are competitive.
By focusing on ten or a dozen congressional seats, and a couple dozen state legislative races, the comparatively miniscule manpower and cash of the Libertarian Party could be employed to attain localized dominance. These smaller elections are frequently won by a strong ground game, and because all its focus is on these select races, the Libertarians could actually have one.
- Choose the most favorable ground
So where should Libertarians be looking for these few key seats? The answer lies in the political polarization produced by gerrymandering across the country. Legislatures have spent decades redrawing state legislative and congressional maps to make them uncompetitive for the main opposition party. The perverse result of this however, is that these districts tend to be most competitive at the primary election stage. The result is that conservatives in conservative districts and progressives in progressive districts tend to represent the interests of (and generally are themselves) the most hardline wing of their constituency. In a stable two-party framework this can still work just fine, as even the extreme view is not enough to drive away enough moderates to the opposition.
Enter the Libertarian opportunity. By appealing to Democratic voters in a deeply Republican districts and vice versa as a palatable alternative, Libertarians could actually present themselves as comparatively moderate, fighting on right mix of issues to win over enough voters to piece together a plurality.
- Form Strategic Partnerships with the Main Parties
That headline may sound like apostasy and selling out. But hear me out for a moment.
Again we should be taking our cue from how smaller parties function in the UK. Over the years, local Lib Dem organizations and their national executive have established informal covenants with their opponents in both parties. In regions where the Conservative brand is toxic, the Lib Dems act as the de facto second party and can fight Labour head-on. They can do the same in the affluent regions where Labour does not dare to tread.
Libertarians should seek to do the same in states and areas that have seen one or the other party purged by incompetence, unpopularity, or a toxic national brand. Hawaii is one of many such areas where the Republicans are so reviled that they are shut out almost entirely from the state legislature, let alone congressional or statewide office. This is fertile ground for a new sort of opposition to take root, one the Libertarians could exploit with relative ease.
- Court Sitting Representatives
There are numerous state legislators, a fair few congressmen, and even a US senator or two who could pretty easily be called libertarians. The problem is getting them to switch from the little l to the big one.
It would require a great deal of courting, and perhaps an infusion of outside monetary support to make it viable, but if even a handful of state legislators, and one or two of the sitting federal legislators could be coaxed to switch allegiance, the Libertarians could find themselves hugely strengthened. This strength would come from the mere fact of having broken into the chambers of government. By being in the corridors of power and not simply howling at them from the outside, the Libertarian Party would benefit from an instantaneous legitimization, one that could be carried forward into its select battles.
This roadmap to electoral relevance will require tremendous discipline from both party leadership and its members. This is often difficult for any movement of a libertarian stripe, given its attraction for individualists. Yet it is a necessary step toward building a mature and effective party that can actually meaningfully affect the legislative process and guide our country back toward liberty.
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