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This year’s Libertarian ticket has remarkable political experience. Now will it matter?

- May 31, 2016
Campaign buttons for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson and vice presidential candidate Bill Weld at the National Libertarian Party Convention, May 27, in Orlando, Fla. (John Raoux/AP)

This past weekend, the Libertarian Party nominated the most politically experienced minor party presidential ticket in recent history. Its presidential nominee, Gary Johnson, served two terms as New Mexico’s governor, and in 2012 became the first former governor to run on a minor party or independent ticket since 1980. Its vice presidential nominee, Bill Weld, served two terms as governor of Massachusetts, after having been a U.S. attorney and a Justice Department official.

That makes 2016 a perfect test case for finding out how much political credibility matters to voters. If experience is important to voters when considering minor party candidates, the Libertarian ticket should perform exceptionally well in 2016 compared with the party’s past electoral performances.

How exceptional is this year’s Libertarian Party ticket?

Quite. Over the past five presidential election cycles, 1996 through 2012, few minor party nominees had previously been elected to a legislative or executive position, as you can see in the table below.

The elected political experience of the presidential and vice presidential candidates for three of the largest minor parties in the United States during this period – the Libertarian Party, Green Party, and Constitution Party. Figure: Kyle C. Kopko and Christopher J. Devine

The elected political experience of the presidential and vice presidential candidates for three of the largest minor parties in the United States during this period – the Libertarian Party, Green Party, and Constitution Party.Figure: Kyle C. Kopko and Christopher J. Devine

Some might have worked within a political party. For instance, 2016 presidential candidate Darrell Castle served several terms as the state chairman of the Constitution Party of Tennessee and as national vice chairman of the Constitution Party. Others have been appointed to political office, like 2012 Libertarian vice presidential candidate Jim Gray, who had been a municipal and superior court judge in California between 1983 and 2009.

And there are a few notable exceptions. Three former U.S. representatives were minor party presidential nominees: Bob Barr, former Republican of Georgia, was the Libertarian nominee in 2008; Cynthia McKinney, former Democrat of Georgia, ran as the Green Party’s nominee in 2008; and Virgil Goode of Virginia, who had served as a Democrat, independent and Republican, ran as the Constitution Party’s nominee in 2012. And, of course, Johnson ran as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2012.

Note that all these candidates cut their political teeth within the major political parties before their minor party presidential bids. There are two exceptions. One is the 2012 Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, who was elected to the Lexington, Mass., Town Meeting while a Green Party member, and who ran several unsuccessful Green Party campaigns for higher office within that state. The second is the 2000 Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee, Arthur Olivier, who served in local government as a councilman and mayor in Bellflower, California.

By nominating two former Republican governors on its national ticket this year, the Libertarian Party may be hoping to pick up votes from Republican and conservative voters who don’t wish to vote for the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump – in part by running candidates, who, in each case, have served more time in public office than Trump.

Further, Johnson and Weld also can be expected to appeal to Democrats and independents. Johnson is a former businessman with strong credentials as an economic conservative and social liberal. Weld, while serving as the popular Republican governor of predominantly Democratic Massachusetts, was nominated by Bill Clinton to serve as ambassador to Mexico.

So is this the year that a minor party could win the White House?

Don’t count on it. The chances of Johnson and Weld winning the 15 percent support in national polls necessary to make the cut for the national presidential debates with the two main candidates this fall are low. It’s true that 60 percent of the public said last fall that a “third party is needed” in U.S. politics – but a similar percentage of respondents said the same ahead of the 2008 and 2012 elections. And yet, in each of those years, minor party and independent candidates won less than 2 percent of the vote combined.

Why? Political science research suggests that that gap between high theoretical support for a minor party and the relatively few votes actually cast for them can be attributed mainly to the U.S. presidential system’s structure, which makes it all but impossible for a minor party to win office. The U.S. system uses plurality voting, which means that the candidate with the most votes in a state wins that state’s Electoral College votes – and that therefore the minor party votes are almost certain to be protest votes only. And ballot access laws make it hard for minor party candidates to get on the ballot in the first place.

Why support a third party candidate at all? 

So what persuades U.S. voters to support a minor party ticket? Is it simply a matter of agreeing on policy and ideology – or must the candidates also seem credible enough to serve as president and vice president if elected? Is experience even relevant in casting a vote for someone who has little chance of actually winning?

Perhaps the chances of voting for a minor party are better in 2016, though, given the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees’ historically high unpopularity ratings and the exceptional credibility of the Johnson-Weld ticket – if, that is, voters care about minor party candidates’ political experience in the first place.

If voters don’t care, then the Libertarians can only hope for their loyal party members’ support plus a smattering of #NeverTrump and disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters. And, if that happens, minor parties should ask: Why bother recruiting former governors in the future, anyway?

Kyle C. Kopko is an associate professor of political science and the incoming assistant dean for academic achievement and engagement at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Find him on Twitter @KyleKopko. 

Christopher J. Devine will begin serving as an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, this fall. Find him on Twitter @ProfDevine.

Together they are the authors of The VP Advantage: How Running Mates Influence Home State Voting in Presidential Elections (Manchester University Press).

Note: An earlier version of this article failed to include Arthur Olivier’s town council experience. It has been updated to correct this oversight.