Election 2016: The Perils of Political Welfare

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Libertarians have traditionally opposed calls for “public financing” of elections, as well as the current system under which candidates can receive “matching funds” from the Federal Election Commission. In 1996, Libertarian Party nominee-apparent Harry Browne mused about applying for such funding, refusing to commit one way or another until, at the party’s national convention, someone in the crowd screamed “SAY IT! SAY IT!” at him and he begrudgingly announced he wouldn’t seek a government welfare check. And that was the end of that … for the next 16 years, anyway

When former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson dropped out of the 2012 Republican nomination contest and sought the Libertarian nomination instead, some party activists were concerned about his campaign debt (as of April 2012) of about $150,000. No problem, said Johnson. He’d qualify for matching funds and pay off that debt.

Qualify he did, receiving more than $600,000 in political welfare. But it turned out his actual debt had been six times as much as originally reported — more than a million dollars — and his campaign committee ended the general election campaign more than $1.5 million in debt.

In 2016, Johnson is back for a second run on the Libertarian ticket and is thus far the closest thing to a media darling the party has ever enjoyed.

But the $1.5 million debt remains unpaid. And on April 5, the Federal Election Commission notified Johnson and his campaign that it wants a good chunk of that 2012 welfare check back. It deems more than $330,000 in “matching funds” to have been improperly spent. The campaign has 30 days to cough up.

What was shaping up as a banner year for a credible third party presidential campaign seems to be going south for Gary Johnson — and for the Libertarian Party, if it nominates him next month at its national convention in Orlando.

Fortunately, the party has other options. Among others, software tycoon John McAfee, libertarian talk radio host Darryl W. Perry, and former Fox producer Austin Petersen have offered themselves up as presidential prospects.

As a long-time partisan Libertarian, I’d hate to see my party set itself up to come in a distant fourth place this November, behind likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein. That’s already a distinct possibility given the likelihood that Bernie Sanders’s supporters will desert a Hillary Clinton Democratic campaign for Stein. It will get a lot more likely if the Libertarian Party nominates a political welfare queen who can’t balance his campaign’s checkbook.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • Delaney Coffer

    Is there a meaningful distinction between third and fourth?

    • I would say there is, but “meaningful” does not mean “not marginal.”

      Third place has a lot more mojo than fourth place for getting media attention and money for future campaigns and building a party organization. Especially if there’s a huge gap between the two places.

      Assuming that Sanders is not the Democratic nominee, Stein has the potential to poll several million votes. I’d be surprised if it was as high as five million, but not ESPECIALLY surprised.

      Meanwhile, the max upside potential for the Libertarian Party with Johnson as its nominee is probably 800k-1 million votes.

      One of those outcomes can be plausibly parlayed into a boost to future efforts. The other one not so much.

      • Delaney Coffer

        A lot? Come now. Personally, I think the libertarian party is a vanity project. Rand Paul is right when he says libertarians should infiltrate the republican party if they actually care about having any influence.

        • People have been trying to “infiltrate” the Republican Party with libertarianism for at least as long as there’s been a Libertarian Party.

          The Libertarian Party may not have accomplished much, but it’s accomplished probably two full orders of magnitude more than “libertarian Republicans” have. The GOP is more than 150 years old and set in its ways. It’s glad to get libertarian votes and occasionally talk a little libertarian pidgin, but it’s never going to let itself be substantively changed. And why should it? It’s been the first or second largest American political party since 1860.

          • Delaney Coffer

            Never going to let itself? That ignores reality. To say the republican party hasn’t changed in 150 years isn’t an argument. It’s hyperbole. I maintain that the LP is a worthless enterprise which serves the sole purpose of electing democrats. It’s fine as a mental exercise, but in terms of electoral results, they just get democrats elected.

          • Well, we’ve discussed before the complete dumbassedness of the claim that the LP “elects democrats.” That’s something you know better than, but like to hang out as argument bait for some reason.

          • Delaney Coffer

            If they do anything (which is rare) they get democrats elected. It’s mostly a vanity project, but every now and then they hand a close election to a democrat. As someone who gets called a conservative, I find this a self destructive thing for libertarians to do because the modern democrat party is an openly marxist enterprise and liberty and marxism are polar opposites. Somehow, however, many libertarian partisans can rationalize this due to their maniacal hatred of republicans. I don’t get it.

          • “If they do anything (which is rare) they get democrats elected.”


            And like I said, you know better.

            You know that to the extent Libertarian candidate for US Senate Sean Haugh in North Carolina had an effect on that outcome, it was in favor of Republican Richard Burr.

            And you know that in Virginia, the only reason Ken Cuccinelli came as close as he did to winning the governorship was that Libertarian Robert Sarvis took a bunch of votes out of Terry McAuliffe’s hide.

            You know these things because I’ve explained them to you.

            Therefore, you either don’t believe what you’re saying, or else you believe it because you want to believe it and in spite of, not because of, the evidence.

          • Delaney Coffer

            I can find plenty of examples if you’re wanting me to write a term paper. I shouldn’t have to. I don’t need my dick sucked here, but a little courtesy is in order. Since we’re talking about “what I know”, I know that the libertarian party is perennially below 2% every election cycle. While there might be great reasons to support the libertarian party in principle, they remain the Great Pumpkin that never shows up for Linus and Sally. Like many enterprises, it fulfills the people who populate it, but that doesn’t manifest into any political relevance. It’s Dungeons and Dragons. Nothing wrong with Dungeons and Dragons, but it should be seen as what it is.

          • Are there some cases in which enough people vote Libertarian, but would have voted Republican if there hadn’t been a Libertarian on the ballot, to change the outcome of the election in favor of a Democrat?


            But that’s a far cry from the claim that Libertarians elect Democrats.

            Votes belong to voters, not to parties. If the GOP wanted those votes, it should have earned them. In my case, that wouldn’t be possible. If there’s not a Libertarian running, I look for another third party candidate to vote for. If there isn’t one, I usually just don’t vote for the office. If I feel like I really MUST vote for the office, I generally vote against the incumbent. That translates, IIRC, to a grand total of one vote by me for a Republican, and IIRC no votes for a Democrat, since 1992.

            You’re correct that the next time a Libertarian breaks 2% in a presidential election will be the first time. On the other hand, Libertarians do better than that for lower office and even win a state legislative seat now and again (my wife was a Libertarian elected to local office; I was a Libertarian appointed to federal office, by none other than George W. Bush).

            And you’re right that there’s nothing wrong with Dungeons and Dragons. There are a lot of different reasons why someone might vote Libertarian or even be involved in the Libertarian Party, and some of them are certainly along hobbyist or fetish lines. To that extent, be consoled that we’re not clogging up your GOP committees and caucuses with our saving throws versus decapitation by orcs or whatever.

          • Delaney Coffer

            You’re an eloquent advocate for your cause. I used to be one of you. I guess I sold out. I’m not as cynical as most libertarians, though. I find there is reason to side with one likely outcome over another likely outcome if they are demonstrably different outcomes. I find the meme describing republicans and democrats as identical to be more a tantrum than an argument. It is beyond obtuse to pretend those two parties are somehow “the same”. It’s great rhetoric for stirring up the alternative types, but it bears no resemblance to plain honesty.

          • Maybe I’ll take on old George Wallace’s “not a dime’s worth of difference” saying some time. I think it’s defensible, but I suppose it could be something along the lines of parallax error, where my actual position only shows me things from one angle and they might look different if I moved to the left or right a bit.

            Twenty-five years ago I was a Rush Limbaugh listening, National Review subscribing conservative Republican — one time some smelly hippy labor organizer type came up to me and I explained to him “I’m to the right of Pat Buchanan;” he moved immediately in the other direction.

            I consider what happened after that to be a three-word thing: “I grew up.” But I can see why people who’ve moved in the opposite direction and/or from a different location might see things differently.

          • Delaney Coffer

            I’d say you grew cynical. The republican party must have really broken your heart.

          • I tend to be performance-based in my judgments. I was primed and ready to vote for George HW Bush’s re-election in 1992. All he had to do was stick to his “no new taxes” pledge. Instead, he shit the bed on it.

            I also happened across a Firing Line debate on the War on Drugs about that time, with New Gingrich sitting next to Pat Schroeder and Charles Rangel, all three of them smugly assuring America that they were united on that issue, not a dime’s worth of difference.

            So fuck’em.

  • Plw Browne

    My name is Pamela Wolfe Browne, and I’m Harry Browne’s widow. I’d like to set the record straight regarding your inaccurate statement, “In 1996, Libertarian Party nominee-apparent Harry Browne mused about applying for such funding, refusing to commit one way or another until, at the party’s national convention, someone in the crowd screamed “SAY IT! SAY IT!” at him and he begrudgingly announced he wouldn’t seek a government welfare check.” The headline of Issue #2, January 2, 1996, of “Harry Browne for President Internet Campaign News” (an electronic newsletter published periodically by the Harry Browne for President Campaign Committee) states, “Browne Campaign Qualifies for Matching Funds; Campaign Fundraising Passes $500,000 Mark; A Personal Message from Harry Browne, “Why I Won’t Take Matching Funds.” If anyone is interested in reading the article Harry’s wrote 6 months prior to his nomination as to why he refused federal matching funds, you can find the campaign newsletter and article at: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/ne.politics/yn82hc-F87g