In an election year noted for political upheaval and disappointment, its should not be surprising that a third party candidate is enjoying more of the spotlight.

  • Libertarian Party says it's primed to make big inroads in American politics this year
  • Emphasizes individual rights over government
  • Presidential candidate Gary Johnson polling between 4 and 12 percent, depending on the poll

Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico and Republican presidential candidate, is once again running for president as a Libertarian.

This time around, however, Johnson thinks he and the Libertarian Party have a chance to be a viable alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.

“This is a big alternative,” Johnson said after winning the party’s nomination at the national convention in Orlando in May. “And arguably we’re talking about the two most polarizing figures in politics [Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump] and that’s our choice.”

He may not be wrong. Recent national polls show Johnson, in hypothetical matchups against Clinton and Trump, polling anywhere from 4 to 12 percent. Those poll numbers have helped him earn a live town hall event on CNN Wednesday.

What is the Libertarian Party?

At the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando last May, Matt Kibbe, a former president of the FreedomWorks advocacy group, summed up the Libertarian Party this way: Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff.

“I happen to think most people in this country are Libertarian,” Gary Johnson said. “They just don’t know it.”

According to the Libertarian Party platform, Libertarians emphasize the individual over government. They tend to be more socially liberal but fiscally conservative.

For Libertarians, America’s government, at all levels, has gotten too big for its britches. They want to end all entitlements, from Social Security to welfare. Their platform says retirement should be handled by the individual and private volunteer groups do a better job caring for people who need help.

They want to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, repeal or replace the income tax (Johnson advocates the FairTax, which replaces the income tax with a national consumption tax), and abolish federal programs and services not listed under the U.S. Constitution.

Libertarians take the ultimate laissez-faire approach to government: no regulations, free trade, no forced labor requirements, no affirmative action, no bailouts, no subsidies, no government control. They believe in true free-market, that all businesses must rise and fall on their own.

“The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society,” according to the Libertarian Party platform.

Libertarians extend that free-market approach to the environment, energy, health care and even public education.

They also believe, according to their platform, that gun laws should be abolished, as should drug laws. They are pro-gay and are against all forms of discrimination, though they do say private groups have the right to set their own standards. They think government should stay out of abortion and they are against the death penalty.

When it comes to national defense and foreign relationships, they believe in maintaining a standing army, but prefer not to use it unless absolutely necessary. Johnson would prefer a diplomatic approach to international conflict, such as North Korea’s nuclear attempts, for instance.

And while they favor some intelligence efforts, they are against anything that violates the rights of individual citizens.

They also tend to look more favorably on immigration, preferring more open immigration laws.

Party growth and growing pains

At one point during the party convention in Orlando, national Chairman Nicholas Sarwark asked delegates to stand. He then asked how many delegates attended 5 conventions, 10 conventions and so on.

As delegates sat down, the ranks of those standing got older, more male and whiter.

The Libertarian Party is steadily on the rise, and also attracting people from all walks of life.

“I think it’s a natural growth,” Sarwark said. “I think our message appeals to young people, to people of color, to people who have problems with the way the government has been used to constrain their choices.”

The party is also drawing fresh members from Republican and Democratic parties. Sarwark said that, since Sen. Ted Cruz dropped out of the GOP presidential race, membership had increased at least 15 percent.

That has led to some growing pains within the party. Gary Johnson, the party’s presidential nominee, was not a clear choice in 2016, winning the majority of the delegate votes in May on the second ballot.

Party members say it is not uncommon for a Libertarian nominating convention to be contested. However, one could not help but hear the boos coming from Johnson critics during speeches and even debates.

Some in the party fear the growth of Republicans like Johnson and his running mate, former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, will turn the Libertarian Party into “Republican light.”

The frustrations led to a confrontation at the May convention between Johnson’s supporters and supporters of opponent Austin Petersen, a lifelong Libertarian.

A lot of the concerns stem not so much from whether government should be a part of people’s lives, but at what level government should function. Some libertarians think Johnson’s platform and reduction of government doesn’t go far enough.

After Johnson clinched his party’s nomination, Petersen pledged his support, however. So party leaders are willing to work with Johnson if it leads to attaining their goals.

Ballot access

The question now is how well Johnson can compete against Trump and Clinton. The deck is stacked against him.

The party is currently on the ballot in 33 states. It is currently working to get on the ballot in seven states and the District of Columbia.

That leaves 10 states where the Libertarian Party is still not on the ballot – New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Iowa, Minnesota and Washington.

Johnson also needs to poll at 15 percent to be included in presidential debates, based on five national public opinion polls. If he does not get into the debates, it will affect his ability to get his point across.

Still, the party is pushing forward. That includes fundraising efforts. The party is courting third party fundraising groups to assist, like the Koch Brothers, billionaire businessmen who have sunk millions into political parties and candidates.

“In 1983, they shifted strategies and went to funding the Republican Party in an attempt to fix it,” Sarwark said. “It is not fixable. They have not gotten what they want out of it, and honestly any party that can encompass Donald Trump and Rand Paul stands for nothing.”

Sarwark says in the month of May fundraising was four times more than usual. That money will be crucial because the party, and Johnson, will seek a 50 state strategy, even if the party does not get on the ballot in all 50 states.

Either way, Libertarians are more pumped than ever at their chances.

 “We are at the culmination of 45 years’ worth of work, to build up active parties in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” Sarwark said. “The two old parties are busy self-destructing right in front of us, they’ve nominated the two most hated candidates the American people have ever seen and we are presenting a fresh, positive alternative that will be on the ballot for every single American in November.”