Why Libertarians Lose
“Libertarians will never win.” “Why don’t you just join the Republican Party?” I’ve heard all the reasons I’m “doing it wrong” from people outside the Libertarian Party. “We don’t have ballot access.” “We aren’t able to raise money, because we aren’t bought by special interests.” I’ve heard every excuse inside the Libertarian Party about why we do not win elections. Aside from the ballot access issue and joining the Republican Party, what you’re about to read is also valid for “small L” libertarians, grassroots campaigns of either the Democratic or Republican variety, and nearly any recently “off the couch” activist-turned-candidate. There are obvious exceptions in the case of independently wealthy individuals or celebrities or athletes cashing in on their fame, but these are generally the “rules.” Also, there are “wins” that can be achieved without actually having more votes than the others running, but that is for another day.
The “mistakes” I outline below are not the fault of the candidate, their staff or their volunteers. It is my opinion that they are just unaware of the “mistakes.” The first and most devastating mistake that Libertarians make is that they are not involved in government until they are ready to run for office. They have not attended a single City Council, County Commission meeting, or visited their state legislature to watch them in action, let alone been involved enough to know the players or the game. At the local level, there are many opportunities to get involved without winning an election. This mistake hurts potential candidates for two reasons: no one knows who they are, and they do not have any record on which to run.
When no one knows a candidate, they must invest in more name recognition and identification efforts than one who is known, draining campaign contributions which are critical for candidates at all levels of government. They also have relatively no network from which to draw, leading to a cyclical problem of underfunding and not being able to get their name “out there.” When you are a third-party candidate, you may also face ballot access hurdles, which I often describe as starting 20 yards behind Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt on the track. While I discounted a lack of ballot access earlier, the hurdles there can be overcome more easily without the “name ID” issue.
Further, a candidate with no experience in an appointed or elected capacity runs on philosophy and promises alone. Those things, coupled with unicorns, fairy dust, and rainbows MIGHT win an election, but they do not instill confidence in voters that they are choosing the “right” candidate. To illustrate this, would YOU consume an “elixir” from someone you just met, without any evidence of the benefits promised: curing all that ails you, making you taller, and losing that 20 pounds you have wanted to get rid of since college? Me neither. It would take a lot of research on my part, and a lot of education on the part of the salesman, both of which are unlikely to occur in an interaction with a candidate needing to reach out to as many voters as possible.
Libertarian candidates have no network from which to draw. Sounds familiar, right? The party apparatus is not present to provide you with a “campaign in a box,” and if the race is part of intra-party business, whether a primary or convention, parties should not be supporting one candidate over another. Party support comes AFTER they secure the nomination. This particularly affects the “small L” libertarians who choose to run as one of the majority party candidates, often against a longtime incumbent whose most recent term finally “woke up” his challenger. That lack of a network is not necessarily party-related.
If a candidate is active in his community, the network may not even require any political connections. This means volunteering, leading, and networking outside the political arena. Whether it is a charity, business, or athletic network, it is a large group of people (hopefully) who know you. They know what kind of person you are, and what kind of representative you would make should you win. They can be your biggest allies, but they can also be some of your biggest detractors.
The next mistake is that Libertarians, libertarians, and other grassroots candidates aim for an office that is “too high” right out the gate. Upset with your incumbent Congressman? Run against him, right? Wrong. Some of the best and smartest candidates I know tripped themselves well before Election Day by running for an office they did not have a chance of winning. They may as well have stayed home and saved the money, heartache, and effort, because the results were essentially the same. Typically, these candidates were also victims of the first mistake, and the second one compounded it, because their sights were set too high. There are EVEN MORE tyrannical City Councilmen, County Commissioners, and other local officials to remove from office, but those positions are out of the average citizen’s reach without proper planning and execution.
This is the mistake I even see Presidential candidates make. You are not entitled to media coverage simply because you are on the ballot or a declared candidate. Period. Yes, there is a media bias, but it is neither liberal nor conservative. The bias is for the status quo. “Bad” elected officials make for better news when they are re-elected. To be covered by the media, you need to do something newsworthy. You need to EARN their attention. Whether you have media contacts before you ran for office or you make them along the campaign trail, you need to be friendly with the media. Criticizing them for not including you does not accomplish that. I could write a book about all the poor media relations I witness and have witnessed, as well as how they could address them properly, but that is not what this piece is about.
Avoidance of the mistakes outlined above does not guarantee a win at the polls, but it puts you on the right track.