If you got a bunch of people together and asked them, in an average week, what day and time would be the best for picking a presidential nominee, chances are they wouldn’t say “Sunday morning.” Yet here we were, 9:30 ante meridiem, waiting in a hotel ballroom in Orlando resortland, waiting for the assembly to come to order and select a champion.
The candidates milled about shaking hands, checking in with allies, killing time without actually doing much — least of all Gary Johnson, refusing to get beyond generalities other than a specific, strong denunciation of the debate questions the night before. To be fair, the media questions weren’t much more inspiring; many of the outside reporters started coming to me and a couple of others who had been through the event previously to fill in details about what, exactly, was going on.
While the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure.
The Libertarian convention is a wholly different manner of thing from the Republican and Democratic versions. Because the nominee has almost always been established weeks beforehand, the entire convention gets bent to their caprice; backstage drama is not about who will or won’t head the ticket, but rather who will or won’t be allowed a speaking slot to address the convention — a must for anyone with present or especially future designs on party power. Thus while the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure. In large part, political beat reporters long for a contested convention for the sheer sake of having something to report on other than mid-level position jockeying and embarrassing ego stroking.
The beauty, and the danger, of the Libertarian model is that every convention is contested. Whatever your advantages going in, nothing can be taken for granted (as Bob Barr learned in 2008) and almost anything can happen (as the entire Party learned with Michael Badnarik in 2004). From an outsider’s view, there was no way that Johnson, with his higher profile, past political experience, and infinitely greater access to media outlets, could do anything but cruise to victory. I wasn’t so sure: while none of the competitors seemed likely to steal away the nomination, they might be strong enough together to make things difficult — if their coalition held. With Johnson straw-polling at about 35–40%, and the next three pulling between 13–15% each, we looked set for at least two or three rounds.
There was a motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master.”
With the ballots distributed, we hurried up and waited. The interim between voting and counting was filled, as usual, by a variety of speakers, most of them candidates for Congress or even state office. These are not the operators of the major-party scene; these are people who have entire lives outside of politics: hobbyists and dilettantes, certainly, but ones who care enough to devote their own time and money to a losing cause — whether that be standing up to an incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed, or calling out the tyrannies of opponents on either side. They’re also an incredibly mixed bag: among the convention speakers were Lily Tang Williams, a Senate candidate from Colorado who “grew up eating trapped rat meat in Mao’s China”; Kimberly Schjang, a black lesbian running for the Nevada state senate; Rick Perkins, a Texas candidate about as white as one man can be, who then called up to the stage a black teenager from Georgia who planned to start a “freedom club” at her high school upon returning home. “This is the future!” he said, lifting her hand with his — a great message for whatever TV audience was looking on, though unfortunately far from the defining image it should have been. (And it wasn’t all highlights: choice among the opposite number was Ernest Hancock of the Arizona delegation lambasting the “lame-stream media” for not “getting it,” in front of the largest mainstream media contingent the Party has ever drawn to anything.)
The remainder of the time was taken up with an incessant stream of questions from the delegates, in the parliamentary forms of points of order, information, inquiry and personal privilege. Though often just a guise to promote the Party’s website, phone number, and social media info, these moments can also serve as funny or surreal irruptions amid the more orderly business. Two stood out: one motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master” (and by the end of the series, one might note, no life either); and another lamenting the lack of an official song for the convention, which the speaker remedied for himself, at least, by playing a jaunty tune on his harmonica.
At last the tally was complete, and the chairs of each state delegation commenced the finest part of any convention: stepping up to announce vote totals and brag about their state. In the LP, this usually means highlighting defeats of overbearing legislation, or historical points of relevance; for instance: “The great state of Illinois, where we send our governors to prison, casts its votes as follows . . .” Others took a different tack: “Those of us from the state of New Jersey would like to say, We’re sorry . . .” New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help Granite Staters “survive the zombie apocalypse.”
Witty or otherwise, all the states took a turn; as each was announced, it became clear that Johnson could take the ballot, but it would be very, very tight. Johnson was polling better than 40%, but Petersen and McAfee scored in most states as well, and there was a small but surprising tally for Feldman off the back of his energetic debate performance. All of these appear to have drained a bit of support from Perry, who kept only the hardest core of the Radical Caucus, but still cleared the 5% necessary to carry on. Kevin McClintock came in last with nine votes, less than 1% of the total — which normally would have made him a non-factor, except that in the final count, Johnson lacked only five votes to win outright.
New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help NHers “survive the zombie apocalypse.”
By the time McClintock finished his two-minute concession, the campaign crews were hard at work. The McAfee and Petersen crews each expected to get the other’s support when they dropped out, and Perry’s as well (though Perry would personally have gone None Of The Above before Petersen) — but the three of them together would also have to pull votes from Johnson’s haul. Part of Petersen’s strategy was to stage a confrontation with Johnson outside the ballroom, breaking through the media scrum to accuse him of refusing to “unify the party” with a more conciliatory VP pick. But Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers. Really the governor was just serving as decoy; as Brian Doherty details, instead of waiting for the McClintock faction to drift in, the Johnson campaign was busy whipping Feldman voters, reminding them that it was the governor’s support that got him in the debate, and making the case that one tribute vote was enough.
The strategy bore immediate dividends: Johnson took the second ballot with almost 56% of votes cast; out of the 60 he picked up, 40 came from Feldman. McAfee held onto his count, and Petersen picked up a handful, but not close to enough; Gary Johnson would be the party’s presidential nominee for the second election running.
Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers
And yet, strange as it may seem, all the foregoing served merely as prelude for the real fight of the day, over whether or not former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld serve as the Party’s vice-presidential nominee. As soon as the victory was announced, everyone switched gears: Johnson, with Weld at his side, went to meet the press as nominee; Petersen quickly declared his endorsement of Johnson at the top of the ticket, but threw his own support behind Alicia Dearn’s campaign. McAfee left the floor entirely; given past statements that he would be LP for life except if Johnson was the nominee, some wondered if he was gone for good. Perry attempted to round up any outstanding VP tokens to see if he could get into the race — not actually to run, but to withdraw and urge support for either Larry Sharpe or Will Coley.
Over the lunch break, the “Anyone But Gary” coalition morphed into a “Never Weld” one. And, unlike with Johnson — who for all his drawbacks remained reasonably well respected, even liked, among the rank and file — this time, they would be going after a much more vulnerable target.