Much of the coverage of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, L-Mich., announcing his presidential exploratory committee had assumed he would be the Libertarian Party nominee after their convention in May. Many are counting their chickens before they hatch. Amash seeking the Libertarian nomination doesn’t mean he’s going to get it.
Expecting to be nominated for President by a party you joined the month before the national convention is generally not a good strategy. Libertarians have held many (non-binding) primaries, and states had held conventions to elect delegates to the national convention well before he joined the field.
An Amash nomination would be the fourth time in a row that the party nominated a former Republican for President. If the Libertarians had an existing contender who could make a strong showing carrying the Libertarian banner, it would make sense for them to tell Amash to pound sand.
The Libertarian presidential field, however, is led by Adam Kokesh, Jacob Hornberger, Jo Jorgensen, and others whose names will be soon forgotten by the public, if they ever hear them. The most famous candidate in the field other than Amash is Vermin Supreme (aka. The Guy who wears a boot on his head.)
It’s not healthy for a party to consistently draw its presidential candidates from people elected outside the party. However, there’s an excellent reason the Libertarians have done so in the last three elections. The smallest percentage of the vote claimed by a Libertarian Party candidate in the previous three elections was 0.4 percent of the vote in 2008 for former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr.
Between 1984 and 2004, the Libertarians chose Libertarian activists without elective experience in all but one election, and only once (1996) did the Libertarian nominee get 0.4 percent of the vote or more. In 2016, Gary Johnson got 3.24 percent of the vote. Should any of the non-Amash candidates win the nomination, there’s a good chance that the 2020 Libertarian nominee would get only one-tenth of what Johnson won last time. That result will not only be disappointing but hurt the party’s ballot access efforts in 2024.
Hornberger and Kokesh believe Amash’s presence will bring media attention to whoever the Libertarian nominee happens to be. Kokesh hoped a year ago that an Amash candidacy would “force” the media to announce who won the Libertarian Party nomination with headlines that would read, “Libertarians Refuse to be Pawns, Nominate Adam Kokesh as Presidential Nominee.”
That view is wishful thinking. The story the media will tell, in the event of an Amash loss, will focus on the point that Amash blundered in his decision to run for President. They will mention who won the Libertarian Party nomination, but the challenge will be to get the media to mention the candidate’s name again in the next six months. If he’s a nominee, Amash will be able to draw media coverage and obtain resources that the other candidates won’t be able to.
There’s a good chance the Libertarian Party will nominate Amash. While Amash is late in deciding to enter the race, it’s something he’s been publicly considering for over a year, so delegates have already had a chance to mull over his potential candidacy. I expect that he’s touched base with enough party activists to have a good idea that he can win enough support to be the nominee. Also, regardless of party affiliation, Amash has always been a leading voice for liberty, constitutionalism, and other Libertarian causes. He’s not like Lincoln Chafee, Mike Gravel, or William Weld. Each of those men sought to be on the Libertarian’s national ticket despite not being libertarians.
The Libertarians’ nominations of Barr and Johnson suggest that party seniority isn’t a critical factor in their nominating process. Amash is a substantial upgrade on Johnson in terms of libertarian philosophy, ability to communicate his ideas, and the fact he’s been elected to office in this century.
A convention with unpledged delegates offers a lot of variables, but there are reasons to think Amash is far more likely to win the nomination rather than fall flat on his face.
Correction: The original version of this article stated the Libertarian Party was holding a virtual convention. While the party’s in-person convention in Dallas was cancelled, the Libertarian National Committee has not yet determined whether to schedule a virtual convention or to postpone the convention until July.