In a year in which the two major parties are consumed by turmoil, the Libertarian Party, which is trying to emerge from a fringe movement into a viable alternative, nominated two former Republican governors for its presidential ticket at its annual convention this weekend.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Delegates puffed on e-cigarettes between chants of “freedom!” Educational booths proclaimed the virtues of hemp, “trickle-up economics” and the literature of Ayn Rand.
A woman on stilts wearing purple angel wings greeted activists as they milled between seminars on drug-war policies and on “how to abolish the government in three steps.”
In a year in which the two major parties are consumed by tensions, defections and chaos, the Libertarian Party, which is trying to emerge from a fringe movement into a viable alternative, displayed some of the same traits at its annual convention this weekend as it wrestled with nominating two former Republican governors for its presidential ticket.
But there was also a palpable sense of excitement at the event at a sprawling hotel less than 10 miles from Disney World.
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For an anti-war party that promotes legalizing marijuana and tearing up the tax code, 2016 has brought hope that acceptance in the political mainstream is imminent amid broad discontent with the probable nominees from the major parties.
“We have been given the gift of Trump and Clinton,” said Larry Sharpe, a businessman and Libertarian vice-presidential candidate. “Their ears are open, and I want them to hear who we are and vote for us for who we are.”
The Libertarian Party is the country’s third largest by voter registration, excluding people who consider themselves independent, but it is often overlooked as a political sideshow with a hodgepodge of positions that many consider to be either overly liberal on social issues or too conservative fiscally.
With Donald Trump’s rise spawning a contingent of conservative Republicans who will not support him, and backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders believing the Democratic Party is favoring his opponent, Hillary Clinton, Libertarians think they are poised to peel away voters from both sides, particularly since the party aims to be on the general-election ballot in all 50 states.
“There are Republican voters who are going to feel cheated by the fact that their presidential nomination has been taken by a reality-show star, and there are Democratic voters who are going to feel cheated when that corporate shill boxes out Senator Sanders at the convention in that rigged process,” Nicholas Sarwark, the Libertarian Party’s national chairman, said Sunday. “When those people feel cheated, we present an option for them.”
Although only the most fanatical party loyalists are confident about their chances of winning the presidency, many think Libertarians are poised to win a record number of votes. Some believe they could steal a state, which no third-party has done since George Wallace in 1968, or get enough votes to influence the election, as Ross Perot did in 1992 or Ralph Nader in 2000.
More than disrupting the election, though, they see it as a golden opportunity for true national exposure and expansion. The party won more than 1 million votes in 2012, its most ever, and recent polling suggests a growing appetite for third-party candidates.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this month found that 47 percent of registered voters would consider a third-party candidate if Trump and Clinton were the major party nominees.
Political analysts were taken by surprise this spring when two separate polls showed Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and 2012 Libertarian Party nominee, pulling 10 and 11 percent of the national vote.
The Libertarian Party chose Johnson again as its standard-bearer at its nominating convention Sunday. If he can get to 15 percent in polls, he can stand on the debate stage as the first third-party candidate to do so since Perot.
The feat would provide a bounty of free attention for a party that does not have the money for expensive advertising or voter-outreach efforts.
Johnson believes that with sufficient exposure and a positive message he can attract both the young, progressive voters who are backing Sanders and Republicans who want limited government but fear Trump will ratchet up spending and start trade wars.
“We should be portraying an optimistic message,” Johnson, dressed in a dark suit with no tie and wearing sneakers, said in an interview. “Life is good in America.”
Looking to add credibility to his campaign, Johnson is teaming up with William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor who is the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee.
Weld, who has compared Trump’s immigration policies to those of Nazi Germany, said he is actively reaching out to Republican donors who have decided that they cannot support their party’s presumptive nominee.
“I’m going to go knocking on every door I can to try to help us along,” said Weld, who played down reports that the billionaire Koch brothers had agreed to bankroll the Johnson-Weld ticket.
The possible effect of the Libertarians on the November election remains unclear, as most state polls have not included any of the candidates and the party is not yet on the ballot in every state.
Kyle Kondik, of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said a ticket with Johnson and Weld could succeed in capturing many votes in their home states of New Mexico and Massachusetts.
Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada have also shown a propensity to find unconventional candidates appealing, he said, so the Libertarians could tilt close races there.
“The Libertarian ticket is kind of a mix of left and right,” Kondik said. “There is potential appeal for it to be a soft landing spot for voters of all stripes.”
Still, the climb will be steep. There were just 411,000 registered Libertarian voters as of February and, Kondik noted, third-party candidates tend to underperform their poll numbers.
“Ultimately it would be a giant shock if they carried even one state,” Kondik said. “Perot never did, and he got 19 percent.”
Despite efforts to broaden their base and become an acceptable alternative to the American public, Libertarians still battle perceptions they are “Republican lite” or “old white guys.”
The convention’s carnival-like atmosphere belied those caricatures.
A cross-dresser clad in a leopard-print leotard strode across the stage with an umbrella to introduce one candidate, and professional dancers basked in strobe lights at a party before the candidates debated on Saturday night.
The debate itself offered a window into some of the challenges the Libertarians face as they try to package themselves for broader consumption while sticking to their limited-government principles.
The conversation often drifted into strained arguments about how common sense would keep heroin out of the hands of children, how government-issued driver’s licenses are unnecessary — one suggestion was a pink flashing light for new drivers — and how infrastructure could be built without taxes.
“Who will build the roads?” Austin Petersen, a presidential candidate and founder of The Libertarian Republic magazine, said during the debate. “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”
Beyond the leading candidates, there were lesser-known presidential hopefuls such as Vermin Supreme, a performance artist who wandered the event with a rubber boot on his head, and Marc Allan Feldman, who kicked off his convention speech with a Libertarian rap in which he proclaimed, “Republicans and Democrats are wack.”
And then there was John McAfee, the anti-virus software pioneer who in 2012 was in hiding in Belize after the police there sought him for questioning in the death of his neighbor.
McAfee, who presented a campaign video declaring, “here’s to the crazy ones,” doused some of the enthusiasm when he said none of the candidates — himself included — had any chance of becoming president.
Win or lose, most remained encouraged that this year will be important for the Libertarian Party and that even if they do not take the White House there are opportunities to win state and local races and to convert Republicans and Democrats.
Scott Scrimshaw, a community chaplain from Oregon, switched from Republican to Libertarian six months ago after he surveyed the candidate field and found himself disappointed. A longtime admirer of Ronald Reagan, he said he could not trust Trump with his vote and that he did not want to choose between “the lesser of two evils.”
“I feel we are really on the edge of entering a new era of American politics,” Scrimshaw said. “The era of the third party.”