Meet the Libertarian Presidential Wannabes

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Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who is hoping to beat former Fox Business producer Austin Petersen and Web security mogul John McAfee to become the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate. Brian Snyder/Reuters

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

It's not a done deal yet, but Donald Trump continues to lead in both states won and delegates collected in the Republican Party's decision-making process.

His success has triggered a lot of talk from both the libertarian-leaning and from party regulars with some dedication to certain supposed Republican commitments to things like free trade, freer immigration and constitutionally restricted executive power. That talk is about third party or independent candidates rising to oppose Trump come November.

There already is a third party that shares (and extends) many supposed GOP commitments toward free markets and the Constitution, one that is already on the ballot in a majority of states and could likely end up on nearly all of them: the Libertarian Party (LP).

That party will be choosing its presidential candidate at a convention in Orlando, Florida, in late May. I talked this week to two of the leading contenders for that honor, former New Mexico Governor (as a Republican) and 2012 LP presidential candidate Gary Johnson and former TV producer (on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch on the Fox Business Network) Austin Petersen. (Petersen also launched the libertarian commentary and news site Libertarian Republic.)

(The press contact for a third leading candidate, antivirus software pioneer and international man of controversy John McAfee, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Petersen, the underdog, has a well-thought-out coalition-building plan for what he calls an "outside coalition" if it's Trump vs. Clinton, hoping to pick up any available Rand Paul rump from the Republicans and even "principled evangelicals and populists."

Petersen thinks he's uniquely qualified among the LP prospect pack on that, since "there is one big issue that divides libertarians and conservatives in which I happen to share views with conservatives, my stance on being pro-life. If I win the nomination, I'd be the only pro-life candidate" whose commitment to the issue he thinks is consistent and convincing, despite Trump's current statements.

Along those coalition-building lines, the mercurial conservative media leader Glenn Beck has already communicated to Petersen that his support will go elsewhere if Trump wins the GOP nod. After a joint appearance on John Stossel's show with National Review Editor Rich Lowry, Petersen is confident he detected a strong possibility that the magazine would continue its resolute opposition to Trump even if he's the Republican nominee (which doesn't necessarily translate into Libertarian support, of course).

"As a showman, I admire" Trump, Petersen admits. "I think one of the reasons he's doing so well are his showmanship skills. He's tough, he doesn't back down...he's got the old razzle-dazzle." Petersen thinks Trump has successfully sold himself as—if not a true outsider—the insider willing to pull down the walls of a temple that a sufficient mass of Americans think of as corrupt and ineffectual.

"The establishment GOP ignored their base for so long, people are tired of politics as usual," which has created a voting base eager to "watch the world burn, and they don't care that Trump is unprincipled; they might not agree with him on policy, but they are so incensed with the Republican establishment."

Petersen sees Trump's opposition to immigration as key to his appeal; he offers as a counter (though not necessarily as something that will convince a hardcore Trumpite) what he calls "Ellis Island"-style protocols: security checks and disease checks, and if you pass them you can come in legally.

While Petersen says he's personally not afraid of the term "open borders," he does say that he believes "the president should obey the Constitution and law" and thus wouldn't willy-nilly try to nullify any existing immigration laws.

But he says that the president should "have wide leeway in terms of deportation, and only those who actually committed violent crimes" should be deported, and that America would benefit from more worker visas, student visas and a simpler naturalization process. "It should be simpler to migrate here and work; consumers benefit from free markets in labor as much as in free markets in commodities."

Gary Johnson, like the rest of us, can often only repeat silly things Trump has said in wonderment and be perplexed as to how he's catching fire. How, Johnson wonders, does he expect to build a wall across the Rio Grande? How can he talk up free trade in one breath and then say he'll force Apple to make its products here? "Everything I thought was good about being a Republican goes out the window" with Trump's talk, he says.

But Johnson has been on the presidential campaign trail as a Republican, in 2012, before leaving for the LP. "I was up front and personal with this group he is attracting that believe the absolute scourge of the earth has to do with Mexican immigration," but he doesn't think that those attitudes energize a base you can win with nationally.

Johnson says he would deliberately goof on such rabid anti-immigrant thinking while campaigning as a Republican in New Hampshire last time, talking about building a fence across the Canadian border—only to hear, "Oh come on, that's not an issue."

"I was a border governor," Johnson would remind such voters of his two terms helming New Mexico. "And when I tell you [Mexican immigration] isn't an issue and you don't believe me...in my opinion, immigration is a bogeyman issue made up by politicians that want to scare you."

Johnson says as governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2002 he "asked everyone in my cabinet that interfaced with immigration—law enforcement, the courts, education and health and human services"—and they all concluded immigration from Mexico was not a net cost to the government or the people.

He notes how many immigrants pay income and payroll taxes they never lay claim on, in addition to the general contribution to the public good any worker makes with his employers and customers.

Johnson ran for governor with a sales pitch similar to Trump's—the successful businessman who can turn government around. So he understands his appeal on that level.

But Trump's policy commitments, Johnson notes, could easily be seen as arising from racism, "and if you are going to vote for Trump, you are willing to take on that label," though he grants that most Trump supporters don't perceive their fears about immigration as rooted in race necessarily.

Trump or no Trump, Johnson stresses that the LP's greatest hope lies in getting its candidate into the presidential debates once all the candidates are selected, something he's currently suing over to gain access to what he believes is an illegitimate duopoly.

"Even if we are not successful in the lawsuit," Johnson says, "the discovery phase will provide national entertainment when it comes to documents both parties have signed, exclusionary documents to others, and we think the media has also signed on to that."

Johnson admits that running against Trump and Hillary Clinton seems like the most promising possible atmosphere for a Libertarian, especially one with successful real-world political success, like himself.

But, he admits with a chuckle, he thought 2012 was promising as well, and "I was really disappointed" in the 1.2 million votes he pulled. His past experience makes him reluctant to predict that running against Trump would be a slam dunk for Libertarians to break out nationally; the apparent emotional barriers to going third party seem weirdly strong in America.

I press Johnson a couple of times on whether he's been notified, or even caught wind, that any big money with some commitment to small government and the Constitution might be prepared to jump ship from the GOP in the event of Trump and go with him.

He chuckles. "You are obviously asking that question because it makes sense," he says. "But I haven't seen it, haven't touched it. It seems there is a lot of money on the sidelines. I agree with the hypothesis [that he should be able to win such money], but I haven't seen evidence."

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired (Broadside Books).