Escaping Groundhog Day

For as long as many of us can remember, the Libertarian Party has placed candidates on the Texas ballot. Candidates nominated by the party ranged from a myriad of local offices to governor. Though the Party certainly should recruit and develop good candidates for down-ballot races, retaining ballot access is based on voting results in statewide races.

When Libertarian candidates run against both a Republican and a Democratic opponent, statewide candidates have generally received 2-4% of the vote (chart below). The trend has been basically flat. In only two years, 1992 and 2016, was the LPTexas nominee for a statewide executive office able to garner more than 5% of the vote (ballot retention threshold) when both a Democrat and a Republican were running. 

In 1992, Ross Perot received 22% of the vote for President in Texas. Voter turnout was exceptionally high. Railroad Commissioner was the only statewide executive position on the ballot. Additionally, there was a major scandal involving the Democratic incumbent Commissioner. Only Republican candidates for Railroad Commissioner have been elected since.

2016 was a similarly exceptional year. Railroad Commissioner was again the only statewide executive position on the ballot. Poor voter perceptions of Trump and Clinton meant unprecedented attention to alternative party candidates. Additionally, the LPTexas candidate’s qualifications were so clearly superior to those of the Republican and Democratic nominees that the campaign could not be ignored by the major newspapers.

Having all six of the major newspaper endorsements obviously made a difference in vote totals, even though barely sufficient to get past the 5% ballot retention threshold.

In most other years, LPTexas retained ballot access by having nominees for statewide judicial races in which there was no Democrat on the ballot. If Texas becomes more competitive for Democrats (as it soon might), ballot retention could get increasingly difficult. This was the case in 2016. 

On one level, this is disturbing news. Without exceptional circumstances, LPTexas vote totals appear stuck in the 2-4% range with races that include both Republicans and Democrats. On another level, there are some cracks in the duopoly that might be exploited.

Though the 2016 Railroad Commissioner race was anomalous, it did garner significant media attention. Perhaps the major newspapers will be more inclined to consider covering and interviewing Libertarian candidates in the future. It's also encouraging that Gary Johnson was able to triple his showing in the state. One would have to worry, however, that this increase was due to both of the major party candidates being held in such low regard. 

There are other ways the duopoly might be vulnerable to challenge. A major split is becoming increasingly apparent in the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party seems intent on staying far left of where the majority of the Texas electorate resides. There's clearly an opening in the middle of Texas politics. 

There are certain things that the party's state leadership might elect to do about this. But selecting the party’s nominees is not among them.

Anyone who is not affiliated with another political party and qualified for the position can decide to be a Libertarian candidate so long as they file the appropriate paperwork by December 11, 2017. Candidates are vetted by a process that starts at County Conventions and ends with the State Convention. Delegates at those conventions decide who will appear as the Party's nominees on the general election ballot. 

In his book The United States of Dysfunction: A Constitutional History of America’s Present Crisis, Carl Jarvis argues that our current state of political polarization is a result of the selection of party nominees through popular-vote primaries. In prior times, when political party hierarchies selected their nominees, electability was of great concern, thus providing moderating influences not guaranteed when nominees are popularly chosen.

This argument would suggest that LPTexas’ convention-selection process is more likely to produce the most successful nominees. Unfortunately, data in the above graph suggests otherwise. In the last 25 years, the party seems to have made little progress in finding candidates who can increase vote totals - even enough to consistently achieve the relatively modest 5% ballot retention threshold. 

As we enter the 2018 election cycle, delegates may wish to consider what sort of candidates are most likely to be successful in moving the cause forward. Perhaps seizing the emerging opportunity will require fielding candidates of a different sort than those nominated in the past.

Let's keep two things in mind as we contemplate on, and talk about, how to move forward:

Hope is not a strategy. 

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
- Albert Einstein.

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