Is the Libertarian Party Ready for Prime Time?

Image: Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson looks on during National Convention held at the Rosen Center in Orlando, Florida
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson looks on during National Convention held at the Rosen Center in Orlando, Florida, May 29, 2016.KEVIN KOLCZYNSKI / Reuters

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By Jane C. Timm

The Libertarian Party is having a moment.

Thanks to a bruising primary season that has left both the Democrats and Republicans poised to nominate the most unpopular candidates in history to the top of their respective tickets, there is an unprecedented opening, and appetite, for a viable third-party run.

The Libertarians, meanwhile, are on track to make the ballot in 50 states in a year where ballot access is the biggest barrier to third-party challenges.

At the Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention on Sunday, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was chosen as the party’s presidential nominee — after two rounds of voting.

Johnson is polling in double digits against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, and even Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

But the question remains: Is the Libertarian Party ready to go mainstream, and is America ready for it?

Related: Libertarians see an opening in 2016 frustrations

“I’m not worried about politically achievable, we’re Libertarians!” vice presidential candidate Thomas Coley declared at one point during a vice presidential candidate debate to big cheers. It’s a sentiment shared by many in the party, who argue they should emphasize extreme principle and revel in their quirky characters — not move towards more realistic policies and compromise.

During the presidential candidate debate, the room went wild for suggestions of abolishing the Federal Reserve, state-sponsored education, and gun control.

“I believe in a world where gay married couples can defend their marijuana fields with submachine guns, aw yeah baby!” conservative libertarian Austin Petersen said.

“Crystal meth should be as legal as tomatoes,” another candidate Daryl Perry declared.

These are the kind of policies that are completely unlikely to go anywhere in Congress, and will alienate as many people as they attract, but at the Libertarian Convention, the suggestions are met with glee.

Meanwhile, debating whether the Libertarian Party’s platform should oppose all forms of government, the delegates battled: Opposing government made them sound a bit crazy, one suggested, while others said it was ideologically pure.

“Our platform should be a mission statement, not a marketing document,” declared one supporter, a Californian man wearing a short leopard print mini-dress, matching parasol, and kitten heels who would only identify himself as Starchild.

John McAffee — a potential Libertarian nominee and the eccentric cyber-security millionaire who is a person of interest in a murder case in Belize — addressed the delegates on Saturday and tapped into that feeling, telling delegates the fight itself is the goal, not the presidency. He told the delegates he was confident he wouldn’t win the presidency in November.

“The goal is not to occupy the Oval Office, but to occupy the hearts and minds of American people,” he said.

The choice between making a serious play for the presidency or simply running to make a point is a obstacle between the party and more mainstream standing, and the one that sent convention voting into multiple ballots.

It was also a source of contention between the party and its eventual nominee, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who narrowly lost on the first ballot before winning on the second. There was a strong contingent of the party who spent the time between the two votes chanting in opposition to Johnson, “anyone but Gary,” whose Libertarian bona fides were questioned at length throughout the convention.

Johnson, who was a member of the Republican Party when he was governor of New Mexico, was booed during the Saturday debate when he said he’d have signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in government and private property. A crowd member screamed “bullsh-t” when Johnson voiced support for driver’s licenses to protect citizens from dangerous drivers.

During an address to delegates on Saturday, Johnson pushed back, saying he was “not Republican light” and that he was proud to be Libertarian. Still, at Saturday night’s debate, he struggled. The crowd booed when he suggested investing in renewable resources to a room full of apparent climate change skeptics, and when he made the point that eliminating the Federal Reserve — “kill the bank,” as one rival put it — was politically unfeasible, he was met by silence.

After securing the nomination, Johnson briefly addressed the delegation. In his acceptance speech, Johnson pleaded, repeatedly, to the crowd to select his running mate, focusing on the national notoriety that Weld would bring to the ticket. Johnson suggested Weld would help secure millions in fundraising donations and garner national media attention that no other vice presidential contender would be able to.

However, the tightness of his own win gives reason for skepticism that his selected running mate, Bill Weld, can win the vice presidential nomination. The campaign of runner-up presidential candidate, Austin Petersen, made attempts to thwart Weld’s bid in the lobby after Johnson won the nomination.

Should the delegates give him his chosen running mate, Johnson seems to understand that it won’t be the party, exactly, he’s bringing into the mainstream, but rather just his ticket.

“This would be a separation from the Libertarian Party, this would be the Johnson campaign organization,” he told NBC News when asked whether the party would be able to lift him through a general election.

But he’s hopeful. If he’s included in the polls, he says, he’ll rise and make the national debate stage (to do that, he’d need to routinely rank at 15 percent in the polls).

And if he can make the debate stage? Then he can bring Libertarian views to the country.

“I think we can make this happen,” Johnson said.