The 2016 presidential election has become one of the most interesting races in modern history. At the center of attention is Donald Trump, a business mogul and celebrity in his own right, who has dominated the media by repeatedly making controversial statements and calling for controversial policies (banning Muslim immigration, killing the innocent family members of terrorists, building a wall with Mexico, and so on). While gaining favor with a small but loyal segment of the population, Trump has simultaneously received the highest disapproval rating amongst the general population since Gallup started measuring it in 1992, as well as inspiring a #NeverTrump movement within the Republican party.
What has become a disaster for the GOP has concurrently been and will continue to be an opportunity for the Libertarian Party. The party of freedom finally has a chance to grow significantly. And out of its slate of candidates, the most poised to take advantage of the gaping wound on the Republican side is Austin Petersen.
With the option of choosing a two-time Republican governor from New Mexico, why would the #NeverTrump movement be attracted more to Petersen? For starters, Petersen is pro-life. There are a large numbers of conservatives, especially religious conservatives, who won’t consider Gary Johnson because he’s pro-choice (despite the fact that Petersen’s policy position does not significantly differ: he wants to move the issue back to the states). Secondly, unlike Johnson, Petersen supports the rights of Christian bakers to refuse service for gay weddings. The alternate view simply won’t fly for conservatives who believe in religious freedom.
It is true that Gary Johnson’s positions on these issues are convenient when reaching out to liberal Democrats. The general progressive positions are that a woman has the right to have an abortion and that a business should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Despite this, Johnson will fail to pick up as many Democrats as Petersen will Republicans.
Here’s why: firstly, the hate for Trump is even larger than that of Hillary Clinton. While a #BernieorBust movement has also sprung up, it hasn’t gained as much traction as the #NeverTrump movement. Additionally, as the latest Rasmussen poll shows, while 11% of Democrat voters are considering voting third-party, an even larger 16% of Republicans are considering doing so (this math works out even if you factor in that there are more individuals who identify as Democrat than Republican).
Finally, as anyone who’s spoken to the Bernie Sanders audience knows, those of them who are hostile to Clinton would probably vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party instead. One can try to convince them to vote for the Libertarian nominee by arguing that “the LP will have an advantage over the Green Party by being present on the ballot in all 50 states,” but most of them don’t care. “After all,” they state, “if you’re voting third party, it’s mostly moot: your chances of winning aren’t very high anyway, so you might as well vote for someone closer in ideology.” The problem with this? It’s true. At the end of the day, though one shouldn’t give up on Sanders supporters, the bigger opportunity is clearly on the Republican side.
What about the independents? Don’t they make up the largest segment of the voting population and won’t Gary Johnson appeal more to them? While it’s plausible the governor would appeal more to moderates, it’s not the case he’d appeal more to “independents.” So-called “independents” actually consist mostly of Democrat-leaning individuals and Republican-leaning individuals, and these two groups, contrary to popular opinion, are not likely to have more moderate viewpoints than their respective parties, but more extremist viewpoints. In other words, these are exactly the people we’ve been talking about. Particularly, the Democrat-leaning independents are most likely to be Bernie Sanders supporters, and end up voting Green Party. Petersen, meanwhile, will appeal more than Gary Johnson will to individuals on the Republican side of the spectrum.
It’s clear that Petersen is well aware of where his strategic viability lies: he’s already started reaching out to mainstream and libertarian-friendly conservatives for interviews and endorsements. For example, Glenn Beck has stated in response to the Libertarian candidate he’ll be looking for someone else to support if Trump gets the nomination. Petersen’s also been active on Twitter, reaching out to people such as Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and more. Finally, the candidate had an interview with conservative Dana Loesch a few weeks ago, with praises such as “I was laughing out loud at his Twitter feed”, “I feel like we just became best friends”, and “We gotta have this guy back on.” (For those wondering, he did get back on.)
As Petersen displays in the interview, he knows how to hit Republican talking points out of the park without sacrificing the libertarian ideas he believes in. His style of speaking is frank and un-apologetic, which will get people fired up about supporting him. He’s also very fluid and comes off as professional, something that the Libertarian Party has historically lacked.
One common criticism aimed at Petersen after the FOX Business debate was that he came off as too scripted. However, being realistic, we have to admit that the chances of the candidate for the LP being included in the general election debates is still very low, making this point somewhat null. Secondly, in the Stossel debate, it’s not as if Petersen had a bad performance; he had a mixed one. He even had some of the best moments of the debate, including his answer regarding his age and his confrontations with Governor Johnson.
Thirdly, after receiving this criticism, Petersen immediately fixed those issues in the next debate (watch it for yourself). Fourth, it’s clear from the Dana Loesch talk show, that even if his talking points don’t work well on a debate stage for Libertarians, they work well on interviews with the mainstream. Finally, if there’s one person that shouldn’t be on a stage with Donald Trump, it’s the apologetic-sounding and easily-provoked Gary Johnson.
Libertarians have had their fun but now it’s time to get serious. There are only a few state conventions left and the national convention takes place at the end of the month. They can nominate Gary Johnson and try the ill-advised strategy of trying to appeal to Bernie supporters who are rapidly being sucked away by Jill Stein. Or they can try something different, namely nominate Petersen and appeal to disaffected Republicans who are being driven out of their own party in droves and have no place to go.
Some contend that Austin Petersen is the future of the Libertarian party. But where the party really needs him is in the present.
Brett Chandrasekhar is a 24-year old marketer, entrepreneur, and vocal libertarian. You can find more of him at his website IthePerson.com, where he covers news and issues from a libertarian perspective.