Donald Trump is no libertarian.
From his nationalistic views on immigration and trade to his loose positions on civil liberties and health care policy, Trump is a libertarian’s worst nightmare. Of course, that shouldn’t concern The Donald in the slightest—he can easily win without the libertarian vote. Libertarian leaning candidates like Rand and Ron Paul have been unable to gain significant traction in the Republican Party, and the Libertarian Party seems incapable of breaking it’s unimpressive 1% of the national popular vote.
Pundits and columnists have been predicting for the last 18 months that Rand Paul, a popular and effective senator who describes himself as “libertarian-ish,” would be a serious contender for the GOP nomination, bringing about a “Libertarian Moment.” Paul’s White House bid quickly went down the drain as he was unable to cobble together a coalition behind his unorthodox Republican candidacy. The libertarians seem relegated to electoral irrelevancy.
The #NeverTrump movement could change that.
Movement conservatives have been outraged by the rise of Trump. His general character, his lack of a conservative record, and his prior support for democrats makes him anathema to many conservatives, and for good reason. Many leaders of the conservative movement have publicly stated that they while they will not vote for Hillary Clinton, a long time enemy of conservatism, they will also not vote for Trump, even if he becomes the Republican Party’s nominee. Assuming that they stay true to their word, where will their votes go?
Some have toyed with an independent bid, with someone like former GOP nominee Mitt Romney entering the race against Trump and Clinton. Such a bid, however, would face numerous logistical issues with getting on the ballot and creating a national campaign from scratch. While many movement conservatives would love for this to happen, it’s likelihood decreases with every passing day.
Here’s where libertarians stand to benefit. Unwilling to support either of the two major party candidates, movement conservatives have only two choices come November. They can stay home and not vote (and certainly many will), or they can cast their ballot for a third party candidate. Only two parties have the organization and money to place a candidate on the ballot in all 50 states: the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. Now clearly, there’s no overlap between the Green Party and movement conservatives. But the Libertarian Party has significant crossover with many conservatives, especially on domestic policies. Even with their support, the Libertarian candidate has no chance of winning, which means that conservatives don’t need to worry about the issues that they disagree about, such as foreign policy. It’s the perfect protest vote.
In addition to #NeverTrump conservatives, the Libertarian Party is well placed to draw in support from single issue anti-war voters. These are the democrats and independents who are sick of overseas wars who helped propel Barrack Obama to victory in ’08, and who can’t convince themselves to vote for Hillary (who’s closer to a neoconservative on foreign policy than her supporters would care to admit). The Donald, the presumptive GOP nominee, has tried to distance himself from the interventionism of Bush/Obama/Clinton, but it’s hard to take him seriously when his plan for ISIS is to “bomb the s**t out of them” and he has threatened to force the military to commit war crimes. With no home in either the Democrat of Republican parties, anti-war voters could also hop on board the libertarian bandwagon and cast a protest vote for the Libertarian Party’s nominee.
Still, even with protest votes from #NeverTrump conservatives and anti-war voters, there’s absolutely no way that the Libertarian Party could win the election. So what’s the point? How could a small protest vote count as a victory for libertarians?
The Libertarian Party has been happy to garner just 1% of the popular vote in the 40 years of its existence, but there’s always been two benchmarks that they’ve shot for. 5% of the vote would give the LP access to federal funds that the two major parties enjoy, allowing the LP to be more competitive in future elections. More importantly, and far less likely, if the LP reached 15% in national polling by late summer, they could partake in the presidential debates. That is where libertarians, #NeverTrump-ers, and anti-interventionists could claim victory.
That 15% goal seems unattainable now, but it’s still unclear how big the #NeverTrump movement is. Even without significant conservative defections from the GOP, Gary Johnson was regularly showing 5% in national polls leading into fall. If conservative dissatisfaction with Trump and liberal dissatisfaction with Hillary remains as strong as it seems right now, 15% is very doable.
Perhaps the “Libertarian Moment” postmortems were a bit premature.