Enter the Libertarian

With Donald Trump having locked in the numbers for the Republican nomination, I was in Crikey on Friday with a look at some Electoral College mathematics.

My main point is that if a conservative anti-Trump independent were to run and get some traction, that would indeed doom Trump’s chances (which I regard as very low in any case), but it would simply hand the election to Hillary Clinton: it would run no risk of deadlocking the Electoral College.

Instead, I float two scenarios that could conceivably create such a deadlock, and throw the election to the House of Representatives: one involving a better-than-expected Trump performance coupled with one or more “faithless electors” who defect to another Republican; and another involving Bernie Sanders running as an independent, carrying his home state and taking enough votes from Clinton elsewhere to give Trump a number of swing states.

Neither, of course, is at all likely, but they’re an interesting introduction to thinking about how the Electoral College works.

Since then, the main item of news is the Libertarian Party convention held at the weekend. It nominated Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, to again be its presidential candidate, with Bill Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, as his running mate.

In 2012, Johnson picked up 1.0% of the vote, the second-best ever Libertarian result. There’s a wide consensus that he’ll improve on that this time, probably significantly. But you can improve a lot from 1% and still not have very many votes.

It’s incredibly difficult for a third party candidate to get attention in America; even the process of getting on the ballot in every state is a huge task (in 2012 the Libertarians managed 48 out of 50, missing only Michigan and Oklahoma). But if Johnson does pick up some serious support, he will be another major thorn in Trump’s side.

Imagine, for example, that the Libertarian vote in each state improves by a factor of ten, averaging 10%, and that the extra votes all come at the expense of the Republicans. That would be enough to flip seven states (Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina, plus one district of Nebraska) to the Democrats, for an extra 70 electoral votes – enough on its own to convert a modest victory into a landslide.

Even 10% is pretty unlikely, and if Johnson gets there it will probably be by taking some votes from the Democrats as well. Realistically, the Libertarian goal is not so much to influence this election but to achieve a breakthrough in public recognition so as to be placed for an influential role if the Republican Party continues to fracture.

Not that even that much isn’t controversial: Johnson and Weld faced strong opposition and were only nominated on the second ballot, being opposed by purists who are afraid they are selling out libertarian principles. As the Times put it, “Many delegates expressed concern that the party was becoming a landing ground for failed former Republicans.”

However well he does, one thing that Johnson is unlikely to achieve is breaking into the Electoral College – unless by means of Republican electors defecting (that’s how the party got an electoral vote back in 1972). Libertarian support is too evenly spread: Johnson’s best result in 2012 was only 3.5%, in his home state of New Mexico. Another three states, all in the west, gave him more than 2%.

And since New Mexico is a Democrat state (the only one of his best states that is), even a big personal vote isn’t going to change anything. But at least the Libertarians, after a long time on the margins, are starting to get noticed.

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