Libertarians may boo Trump, but they’ll still vote for him

Donald Trump was heckled by Libertarian delegates
Donald Trump was heckled by Libertarian delegates - Brian Snyder /Reuters

Donald Trump’s widely anticipated speech to the Libertarian Party National Convention appears to have been a dud. Party delegates heckled him, and his name was not allowed to be placed in nomination. It may nonetheless yet prove to be a masterstroke.

The Libertarian Party has long been America’s tiny third party. Formed in 1971, it has usually been an afterthought. It has never elected a congressman or Senator, and its high-water mark in presidential races was a mere 3.3 per cent in 2016. Its devotion to a radical reduction in government at all levels, including national defense, means it stands far from the center of public opinion.

It still is a potentially important factor in this year’s race. The Electoral College system means that a candidate can win all of a state’s college votes if they win a state by any margin, no matter how small. The party’s 2020 nominee, Dr. Jo Jorgensen, got only a sliver more than 1 per cent, but she obtained more than Joe Biden’s margin of victory in the four closest swing states. Decrease that just a little, and libertarian voters might be the difference between Trump’s defeat and victory.

And so it was that Trump, whose public ideals are in many ways the antithesis of libertarian philosophy, appeared before the convention to appeal for libertarian votes. He made a number of general observations on issues where there is greater overlap between he and they, such as on protecting gun ownership rights and keeping American out of wars. He also made some specific promises, such as appointing a libertarian to his cabinet, that was clearly meant to be a first offer for a transactional deal.

The delegates were not moved. But they are the party’s elite guard, the truest of the true believers. No reasonable person should have believed they would suddenly be taken in by Trump’s charisma. But it is not likely they were the campaign’s actual target.

Trump’s speech showed a few things. It’s clear he’s willing to go out of his traditional comfort zone in pursuit of votes. This was not a traditional MAGA rally where he is in total control of the audience and the setting. He also read a speech from a teleprompter – unusually well, for a man whose gift is to talk off the cuff for hours on end. This shows a discipline that even the 2020 Trump often lacked. These factors suggest someone who knows what it takes to win and is determined enough to go the distance.

It also showed he can talk a different political language in order to pursue a different type of voter. Trump rarely uses words like “liberty” and “freedom,” but he did on Saturday night. He attacked Joe Biden but refrained from saying the 2020 vote had been stolen. He avoided areas of disagreement and stuck to policies that arguably are the place where MAGA-world and the libertarian universe overlap. It wasn’t memorable, but it was distinctive.

This could be the beginning of a concerted effort to peel off marginal libertarian voters from the Libertarian leadership. He called for working together and noted that if the party and its voters did not want that they could “get their three per cent and keep losing”. A libertarian inclined voter could be moved by that appeal, especially given Joe Biden’s leftward tilt since his election.

There could be a lot more of those voters than party leaders think. LP nominees typically received between one-quarter and one-half of a per cent between 1988 and 2008. Pushing Chase Oliver, this year’s nominee, close to that level would add nearly one million votes to Trump’s 2020 amount. If he could do that, he would need only the slightest swing from Biden 2020 voters to prevail.

Libertarian voters could easily be targeted with a smart digital campaign. They tend to be educated, younger, and very online. Trump’s speech already gives the campaign some images to repackage. Skilled operatives could easily flood X, Instagram, TikTok and other platforms with many more.

This would be a mirror image effort to the one the Biden campaign is using to woo recalcitrant progressives and minorities. Biden’s recent speeches have frequently been on topics designed to appeal to these groups, and they are often coupled with extensive advertising campaigns to reinforce the message. Mining for soft libertarian votes would be a clever counterprogram to bolster Trump’s chances.

Trump will never be confused with a libertarian. But he could be viewed as the lesser of two evils by enough libertarian-leaning Americans to give him a crucial edge in a campaign that looks to be a nail-biter.