The Hill: Could our next president be a Libertarian?

Below is an opinion piece by Randall Holcombe at TheHill.com on September 25, 2019:

As they look ahead to the 2020 election, few political pundits have considered the possibility that a Libertarian Party candidate could be elected president. Yes, I know it’s a long shot, but not as long a shot as it might initially seem.

Because of the Electoral College system of voting, third-party candidates have a better chance of winning than most people think. If no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses the president from among the three candidates with the most electoral votes.

To be in the running, all that a third-party candidate must do is receive enough electoral votes to ensure that neither the Democratic nor Republican nominee wins an Electoral College majority, in which case the “spoiler” becomes a credible final contender. In a close race, the candidate might need to win just one state to send the election to the House of Representatives.

At that point, the third-party candidate would have to convince members of the House to vote for him or her rather than for the major-party candidates. It’s unlikely, but not impossible. It depends on who’s running.

Libertarian ideas on social policy appeal to Democrats, while libertarian ideas on economic policy appeal to Republicans, so a skillful pitch on those ideas might win over Representatives dissatisfied with their own party’s candidates. Although the Libertarian Party is often perceived as a fringe party, libertarian ideas are about as widely held as consistent liberal or conservative views by the general public. Many Americans have views that are socially liberal and economically conservative.

Currently, it’s not a complete stretch to think that many Republicans might abandon their president to vote for a third-party candidate. President Trump is not that popular with House Republicans, judging by the significant numbers of GOP lawmakers who have announced they will not be seeking re-election. If the Democratic nominee is way outside the mainstream – as is easy to picture given the party’s current field of candidates — then a coalition of Democrats might join with some Republicans to support the third-party candidate.

For a Libertarian to win the presidency, the first step is for the Libertarian Party to choose a candidate who appears more reasonable to Americans, and especially to members of the House of Representatives, than the major-party candidates.

The second step is to campaign in just a few key states. In a close election, a third-party candidate could win only Texas, for instance, and still prevent rivals from winning an electoral majority — thus throwing the election to the House of Representatives. The candidate should publicly announce this strategy beforehand, so that voters can see that the candidate has a real chance of victory and that their Libertarian votes would not be wasted .

An attractive Libertarian candidate with only a few electoral votes would then have the same status before the House of Representatives as the major-party candidates — and a coalition of disgruntled Democrats and Republicans could put a Libertarian in the White House.

Keep in mind Ross Perot. In 1992 he received 19 percent of the popular vote, but his support was spread throughout the country, so he didn’t receive a single electoral vote. If he had concentrated his campaigning in a few states, however, he might have converted his popular support into enough Electoral College votes to pitch the contest to the House. And who knows what might have happened then.

Could something similar happen in 2020? It is unlikely. But if 2016 proved anything, it’s that we must not dismiss improbable-sounding electoral outcomes out of hand.