Retrospective: Was John McAfee the Libertarian Party’s Last Chance?
Eric Lendrum, Politics Contributor
It’s fair to say that the 2016 presidential election was full of historic occurrences, ideological shifts, and entertaining twists the whole way through. Whether it was the GOP field being the largest and most diverse presidential field in history, Hillary Clinton’s near-defeat by Bernie Sanders in the primaries, or of course, Donald Trump’s stunning victory and subsequent realignment of the Republican Party as we know it. To say the least, 2016 has never failed to deliver its fair share of shocks.
But looking back on 2016, I’d say there’s one major development that ultimately never happened, yet could have also provided one more layer to the excitement -- and potentially historic implications -- of the 2016 presidential election: The failed candidacy of John McAfee for the nomination of the Libertarian Party.
As we all know, a narrative that arose later in the general election cycle was the notion that the general unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton could fuel a strong performance by the major third-party candidates. The Libertarian Party especially -- being a socially liberal and fiscally conservative party, as well as the third-largest party in the country — had everything to gain, if it took advantage of their unpopularity and put forth a strong candidate.
Unfortunately for them, the party chose to play it safe and renominated former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who ran for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2012 before dropping out and taking up the Libertarian mantle that same year. Libertarian voters chose to nominate Johnson again, and he ran an even worse campaign this year than he did before. Whether it was not knowing what Aleppo was, sticking out his tongue in a random and awkward incident with a female reporter, jokingly faking a heart attack during a debate on the subject of marijuana, or having an angry, SJW-like outburst when an interviewer used the term “illegal immigrant,” Johnson became a joke; he might even go down in history as one of the worst presidential candidates of all time. Even with the high unpopularity of the two main candidates, Johnson got about 4.4 million votes, which is equal to just over 3% of the popular vote (well below the 5% threshold necessary for a third party to qualify for FEC funding in future elections).
What makes this worse is that he essentially dragged the name of the Libertarian movement through the mud by doing so. The party forever became associated with him, even when the 2016 Libertarian primary field was actually one of the strongest ones in history. Johnson’s two rivals were political activist Austin Petersen, and antivirus software developer John McAfee. Petersen --who has hinted at the possibility of running for the Senate from Missouri in 2018, either as a Republican or a Libertarian -- was by far the most like a traditional libertarian, with such stances as: pro-life, non-interventionist, opposed to the War on Drugs, in favor of free-market capitalism, and pro-Second Amendment.
However, I argue that McAfee actually could have been the absolute best shot for the Libertarian Party, in terms of capitalizing on the pessimistic sentiment of the voters in 2016 and possibly propelling the party to a larger status in future elections.
This is because, in many ways, McAfee could have been the Libertarian response to Trump. He is an older businessman with fairly strong name recognition (who hasn’t heard of the McAfee Antivirus software?), an eccentric personality, and a political outsider. On top of that, he shared many of Petersen’s traditionally libertarian stances -- he was also against the War on Drugs, non-interventionist, a free-market capitalist, and even supportive of religious liberty in the workplace (the latter of which is something that even Johnson was not supportive of).
However, also like Trump, he did break from traditional Libertarian Party stances in one major way: His stance on cyber-security. He repeatedly argued throughout the campaign that America needed to focus on and invest in cyber-security much more than it currently does, insisting that this is a major threat, and that he knew exactly what it would take to tackle this issue. This, of course, makes perfect sense coming from someone like John McAfee — just as the areas of free trade and economic protectionism in general made sense coming from a businessman like Trump, no matter how much it defied the usual Republican stances.
Thus, McAfee very well could have hit all the right notes had he been given the keys to the Libertarian car: Third-party, political outsider, name recognition, personality, and generally agreeable issue stances that most average Americans might agree with. Even though the Libertarian Party itself has failed to capture the hearts and minds of the common American voter, McAfee could have been their ticket to finally break through to these people. With the name recognition and similarly “unconventional” status of an outsider businessman as the nominee, the Libertarian candidate could have easily polled above the 5% threshold necessary to appear on the main debate stage alongside Trump and Clinton. From there, barring an absolutely atrocious debate performance, he would have nowhere to go but up, as perhaps the first genuinely viable third-party candidate in recent memory. This could have easily translated to over 5% of the popular vote, and although ultimately not enough to win outright, I imagine his performance would fall somewhere in the middle between John B. Anderson’s run in 1980, and Ross Perot’s near-historic campaign in 1992.
Here’s the catch: With such a campaign that would have been so similar to Trump’s candidacy, and with a similar appeal to disenfranchised voters tired of the status quo, the likelihood is all too strong that McAfee, in his strong performance, would have drawn more than enough votes away from Trump to give Clinton the presidency. This cannot be known for certain (as, for example, Gary Johnson did in fact take away just as many Clinton voters as Trump voters), but is a strong possibility nonetheless.
And so, although a McAfee candidacy ultimately might have been disastrous for the country as a whole (by indirectly causing a Hillary presidency), it still very well could have been exactly what the Libertarian Party needed to propel itself into legitimate, major-party status going into 2020 and beyond. But instead, they played it safe. Instead, they chose a buffoon as their nominee. And as such, their party’s credibility and viability has been severely reduced, and they find themselves set back for years to come. Perhaps not even the return of a McAfee-type candidate can save them at this point. But only time will tell.
You can follow the author on Twitter: @EricLendrum26.
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