Here’s Why Justin Amash’s Entry as a Libertarian Presidential Candidate Probably Won’t Affect the Race
On Tuesday night Justin Amash, a congressman from Michigan, said he was forming an exploratory committee to seek the Libertarian nomination for president. Amash was elected in the historic Tea Party wave during the 2010 midterms. Last summer he left the Republican Party to become a registered Independent and in December he voted to impeach President Donald Trump on both counts — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But despite some national media outlets saying this move “shakes up the race” or “adds volatility,” there is plenty of evidence at this point that shows Amash would have a minimal effect on the presidential election. It is not even certain he would even clinch the Libertarian nomination at this time.
Something which may be a problem for Amash is the fact that he declared his candidacy so late. The 2016 Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, declared in January, which was helpful in laying the groundwork for ballot access and securing the nomination. Gary Johnson in 2016 was the first third party nominee to be on the ballot in all fifty states since 1996. Johnson was also the 2012 Libertarian nominee and Republican governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003. Johnson is not running again and it is no guarantee Amash would be the Libertarian nominee. Despite being the 2012 nominee, it took Johnson two ballots at the Libertarian party’s convention to secure the nomination “over opposition from the party’s more radical faction that can be suspicious of former Republicans as insufficiently libertarian,” Bill Scher wrote. This year’s frontrunner, Jacob Hornberger — an ally of former Rep. Ron Paul — started running last October and has won three-fourths of the non-binding party primaries. Something which disadvantages Amash but benefits Hornberger and others already running is the relationships they have built within the Libertarian Party and amongst party activists.
The Libertarian Party convention was scheduled to take place in Austin, Texas, in May, but that has been upended due to the novel coronavirus. Nicholas Sarwark, the national chairman of the Libertarian Party, has said party leaders would discuss this weekend whether to hold a virtual convention or postpone the convention until the summer. Regardless of who the nominee is, one would think the later their convention takes place the worse it is for the nominee because that would result in less media attention and less time to campaign and raise money.
Furthermore, the Libertarian Party is only on the ballot in 36 states at the moment, and are notably absent in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the last of those three being vital to the president’s re-election. Most of the efforts to get third parties on the ballot will take place in the courts, not the other two branches so it is anybody’s guess as to whether they are allowed on the ballot in various states, as Scher described in his POLITICO piece.
Speaking of media attention, the lack of it for the eventual Libertarian nominee, even if it is Amash, could seriously hamper his campaign. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are extremely well-known candidates so the press is focused on their campaigns. There is a once-a-century pandemic that has crippled the global economy and killed more than 210,000 people worldwide, including a quarter of the deaths coming from the United States. According to any scientists, economists, and public health officials, life here will not truly be “normal” like it was pre-coronavirus until 2021. Until then, and certainly through Election Day, American media will rightfully be broadcasting and writing about covid-19 nearly non-stop. So good luck to third party nominees trying to get media coverage.
A fairly safe bet of potential Amash voters would be a tiny group of people who are principled conservatives who did not vote for Trump and do not like him — like a close friend of mine — but don’t agree with Biden on anything at all to actually vote for him either. One should be dubious Amash would take more votes from Biden than Trump. Amash is a small-government conservative who actually believes in lower taxes, doing entitlement reform, and is pro-life. Why would that attract people who don’t like Trump and are considering Biden? In the Trump era, center-right — often suburban, soft Republicans — voters have sharply veered away from the GOP and have voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms and off-year elections in a few states in 2017 and 2019. They are likely to stick with Biden. Even former Arizona congressman and senator Jeff Flake — a conservative, who has repeatedly repudiated President Trump — said he will vote for a Democrat for president for the first time in his life.
In a national Morning Consult poll of registered voters taken two weeks ago, Amash received 1%. Of course, polls are just snapshots of a certain period in time. For example, in Morning Consult’s poll in June 2016, Gary Johnson received 10% and Monmouth University had him at 11%. But Johnson only got 3.3% in November, though that is the highest for a third-party nominee in several presidential elections. In that 2016 poll, 61% did not know who Johnson was and just 31% could identify him as a politician. When asked what their main reason was for backing Gary Johnson, 72 percent of his supporters said it was because they did not like Trump or Clinton. Indeed, these two had historically high unfavorable ratings for two major party nominees.
However, that is less of an issue for Trump and Biden right now. Trump is more favorable now than in the run-up to the 2016 election, but his net favorable rating is still much worse than Biden, who is about even. A favorable rating is not the same as an approval rating. One could approve of the way someone is performing in office more than they actually like them. Unless the unfavorable rating dramatically changes for both candidates, this is probably another huge impediment to Amash gaining support if he were the nominee. Relatedly, in 2016, there were 11 states that Trump or Clinton won but failed to reach 50% in them. That is the first time since 1996 that either major party candidate failed to reach 50% in ten states or more. It was also the first time all minor party and write-in candidates combined for more than 5% since 1996. It is unlikely these numbers are reached again in 2020.