In an unusual year in politics, Libertarian candidates Sean Haugh and J.J. Summerell are employing unusual strategies to get their messages across to prospective voters.
On Haugh’s campaign website, a video shows him sitting at a kitchen counter explaining how he wants a limited government. The catch: He sips beer at the end of the video, and an end title reads, “Send campaign contributions and beer money!”
Summerell plans to have musical performances on the campaign trail. “My communications director is a hip-hop artist, so we’re going to use music to try to communicate the message as our primary medium,” Summerell said. Asked whether he would be rapping at events, he said: “No. I’m an old white man.”
Haugh and Summerell are among the Libertarians running for public office in North Carolina this year. Seeking to capitalize on the public animosity toward the Republican and Democratic candidates for president, Libertarians are working to get their party’s message out to voters and exert greater influence in future election cycles.
It has the status of North Carolina’s only formally recognized third party, but the Libertarian Party’s candidates for governor or president must receive at least 2 percent of votes or the party’s candidates won’t automatically appear on the ballot in the next election.
Haugh, a pizza delivery driver from Durham, gained national attention in 2014 for his quirky candidacy for U.S. Senate. He’s trying again this year in a statewide campaign dominated by Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross. Summerell, who lives in Greensboro and manages employee-benefits consulting firm Worksite Insight, is challenging U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield in a heavily Democratic district that runs from Durham through northeastern North Carolina. H. Powell Dew Jr. is the Republican in the race.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Summerell acknowledged. “We’ve had a lot of really, really good salespeople on the ground (who are) very active. One of them is Donald Trump. One of them is Hillary Clinton.”
Polls aggregated by the website RealClearPolitics show voters have an unfavorable view of both major-party presidential candidates. The site gave Trump a net unfavorability rating of more than 26 percent as of Friday. Clinton’s net unfavorability was just shy of 18 percent.
FiveThirtyEight, a website that analyzes election statistics, reported in May that “Clinton and Trump are both more strongly disliked than any other nominee at this point in the past 10 presidential cycles.”
But polls show Clinton and Trump with wide leads over Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, who has the support of less than 8 percent of the public, according to an average measured by RealClearPolitics. Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein would need to more than 15 percent in key polls to gain access to debates sponsored by an independent commission.
Johnson is polling better than his Libertarian predecessors. Johnson received 0.99 percent of the N.C. and U.S. popular vote in 2012. Nationally, Libertarian Bob Barr recorded just 0.40 percent of the popular vote in 2008. Michael Badnarik had 0.32 percent in 2004.
Summerell said his goal is to win — although it might not happen this year. “I’d say right now I have a 5-10 percent chance (of winning). The end game is 2018 and 2020. That’s when we really want to win.”
David Rohde, professor of political science at Duke University, said he was “not aware of any races where a Libertarian can win,” including in the presidential race.
“I don’t think Gary Johnson has any chance of winning at all,” Rohde said. “He does have the chance to take votes away from a candidate as does the candidate of the Green Party. I think Johnson’s more likely to take votes away from Trump.”
Mac McCorkle, an associate public policy professor at Duke and former consultant to Democratic governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, said some third party candidates could be spoilers in the general election but would probably not win in the foreseeable future.
McCorkle said Libertarians have tended not to affect close races since they usually receive less than 5 percent of the popular vote. He said Libertarians may take away more votes this year from Republicans, especially in the presidential race since Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld previously served as Republican governors.
Johnson voters could make a difference in the outcome in North Carolina, where polls show Clinton and Trump neck-and-neck.
Wide spectrum of beliefs
In interviews with six North Carolina Libertarians running for public office in November, a variety of views emerged when describing what libertarianism means and what they would do if they won.
“Government should not be allowed to do anything that you as an individual would not be allowed to do,” said Brian Irving, vice-chair for the Libertarian Party of North Carolina running for a state House position near Apex.
Some focused on national security interests while others emphasized the importance of doing more for everyday North Carolinians.
Summerell said party members, at the most basic level, “are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”
Haugh said he is running for Senate on a platform of protecting personal liberties from government overreach.
“Reducing the size and scope of government is key to providing people their social liberties,” Haugh said.
If elected to the U.S. Senate, he said he would try to stop all war, keep government from spending more money than it already has and end corporate control of government.
Gubernatorial candidate Lon Cecil, a veteran and 19-year N.C. resident, said some of his main objectives would be to attract businesses to North Carolina, increase access to employment opportunities and minimize tax increases.
Brian Lewis — running for a seat in the state House of Representatives — is passionate about environmental issues.
Despite such differences in campaign platforms, Libertarians would likely agree with one another that they represent a middle ground where liberal and conservative principles come together. Olen Watson, who is running for state House from a Wake County district, said he thinks his party is best because it attracts voters who are liberal on social issues and conservative on the role of government.
“We’re really better at being Democrats and better at being Republicans than the Democrats and Republicans are,” Watson said.
Trying to win
Joking that he has a one-in-three chance of becoming North Carolina’s governor, Cecil said he would be happy finishing in the high single digits.
“Like all projects, I’m in it to win it,” Cecil said. “If I don’t win, there are still some positives that come out of it, particularly for the Libertarian Party in order to keep us qualified on the ballots as a party for the next four years.”
“As far as strategy goes, it’s getting people comfortable with the notion that they aren’t stuck with two choices,” Lewis said. “They are not stuck choosing a Republican or Democrat.”