Libertarian Party Set To Pick Its Presidential Candidate

May 29, 2016
Originally published on May 29, 2016 8:54 am

More than 1,000 Libertarians from around the country have converged on a hotel in Orlando, Fla., for a long weekend of politicking, strategizing, and seminars with titles like "How to Abolish Government in Three Easy Steps."

They'll also choose their nominee for president on Sunday. Five men are competing to be the Libertarian standard-bearer, including a software tycoon, a magazine editor, and the former Republican governor of New Mexico.

"Libertarian conventions are always exciting," says Carla Howell, the party's political director. "But the excitement this weekend is beyond anything I've ever seen, by far."

Howell thinks that's partly because more Americans are coming around to the party's long-held agenda, which includes legalizing marijuana, curbing government surveillance, and limiting U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

"There is no question to those of us who do retail politics, who talk to voters, they want what Libertarians have been advocating for a long time," Howell says.

Libertarians acknowledge there's another reason their party's getting a closer look: deep dissatisfaction with the likely Republican and Democratic nominees. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found 47 percent of Americans are willing to consider a third-party candidate this year.

Denise Cranford understands that. The Ackerman, Miss., delegate has been active in Libertarian politics for years, but this is the first time she's attended the national convention.

"Trump is disgustingly crude. Hillary, please. Don't make me go there," Cranford says. "Even if I wanted to go Republican, their belief in, 'I want to take over and tell you what to do.' Democrats want to take over and take my money. It's got to stop."

There's a lively competition for the top spot on the Libertarian ticket. The five finalists spent more than two hours Saturday night debating their plans to roll back government in blunt and often colorful terms.

Some of the liveliest exchanges were between Austin Petersen, editor of The Libertarian Republic magazine, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. Petersen tended to take more purist positions, while Johnson's views were often tempered with a dose of governing practicality.

On same-sex marriage, for example, Petersen advocated what he called "total separation of marriage and state."

Johnson said he felt the same way at first, but there were complications.

"It turns out that there are hundreds if not thousands of laws that actually contain the word marriage that would have to be amended," Johnson said. So he endorsed government recognition of same-sex marriage instead.

Some of the biggest applause lines last night belonged to neither Johnson nor Petersen but to anesthesiologist Marc Feldman.

"I don't need any kind of marriage license," Feldman said. "I don't need a marijuana grower's permit. I have a Constitution. What I need is a government that honors it and doesn't ask for licenses or permits and certificates for things that are none of the government's business."

Anti-virus software pioneer John McAfee and publisher and podcaster Darryl Perry are also vying for the Libertarian nomination.

Unlike the major party conventions later this summer where the nominees will likely be known well in advance, there's no telling who will come out on top of Sunday's Libertarian vote.

Mississippi delegate Denise Cranford isn't worried, though. She'll be happy with whoever is chosen.

"If we could just put one in the presidency and the rest of them in Cabinets we'd be awesome," Cranford says. "I'd love to see all those positions filled by Libertarians who want to take over the government and leave you alone."

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Donald Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee. Hillary Clinton is poised to be the Democratic pick. Lots of people, though, aren't happy with either of them, which has brought more attention to third-party options. At a convention this weekend in Orlando, the Libertarian Party chose its presidential nominee. He is former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. NPR's own Scott Horsley is in Orlando. He joins us now. Scott, what more can you tell us about Gary Johnson?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, Governor Johnson - former Governor Johnson just gave his acceptance speech. And it came after some drama. This was a contested convention, as Libertarian Conventions tend to be. And it was a crowded field of candidates. So it took two ballots for Gary Johnson to secure the majority he needed to capture the party's nomination. He bested other candidates, including Austin Petersen who is editor of a libertarian magazine, the anti-virus software tycoon John McAfee and several other candidates.

On the first ballot, Johnson fell just short of a majority so it took a second round. He was also the Libertarian standardbearer four years ago. And in that election, he garnered only about 1 percent of the vote. But Libertarians hope to do a lot better this time around.

MARTIN: And we'll talk about that in a moment. But first, Scott, putting you on the spot here, but have you been to a Libertarian convention before?

HORSLEY: This was my first, Rachel. And I have to say, when I got here and saw all the costumed characters, I was kind of excited. Then it turned out a lot of them were in town for the MegaCon Convention, which is going on next door.

MARTIN: (Laughter) But what was the scene like? I mean, did it just feel like any other kind of party convention? Or did it feel a little different?

HORSLEY: There is a lot of excitement around this particular Libertarian convention because this party, which has often been sort of an afterthought or all but ignored, is getting a little bit of national buzz. There's a lot more reporters here than there have been at past Libertarian conventions, more delegates as well because, as you said, there's a lot of dissatisfaction with the expected nominees of the two major parties.

And the Libertarian Party chairman described this as like watching a - watching the major party candidates go at each other is like watching a football game with two teams where you want both to lose or you want a meteor to fall on the stadium. Well, he says, a vote for the Libertarian Party is like a vote for the meteor.

MARTIN: Wow. Besides a meteor analogy, what is the message? What do Libertarians want besides less government always?

HORSLEY: They want legalized marijuana. They want a minimal military footprint overseas. They want to reform the NSA so there's less government surveillance. They want low taxes, low regulations. There is something of a split within the party, I have to say. Austin Petersen was sort of the voice of the party purists here. And Gary Johnson, while certainly a strong Libertarian, tempered that just a bit with some practical governing experience.

And that came out in a debate that the five leading candidates held here in Orlando last night where - you know, Gary Johnson was asked about things like driver's licenses, whether the government should get out of the business of issuing driver's licenses. Austin Petersen says yes. Gary Johnson says, well, that would be a little chaotic. So there is a big of a rift between the really pure Libertarian streak and those who temper that with a little bit of governing practicality.

MARTIN: And just briefly - what now? They've got a nominee. But are we likely to hear from the Libertarians before November?

HORSLEY: Well, the big question is going to be whether the Libertarian candidate gets to participate in the national TV debates in the fall. Right now, the rules say you have to have - be polling 15 percent to get that. And Gary Johnson is just under that threshold at about 10 percent. That would be a major variable here - is whether the Libertarians will score a place on that debate stage in the fall.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley in Orlando - thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: Great to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.