On the day before the 2016 election, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson sent a note to his supporters. “Whatever happens tomorrow, understand we won,” he said.
But on the day after the election, with Hillary Clinton vanquished and Donald Trump declared the president-elect, the main things Johnson and his fellow Libertarians had won were about 3 percent of the vote and the unmitigated rage of angry liberals and journalists looking for someone to blame for Trump’s victory.
As Trump’s numbers began to come in Tuesday night, Clinton supporter Seth MacFarlane tweeted, “How is that Gary Johnson protest vote treating you?” When the votes were counted the next day, Vanity Fair declared, “Gary Johnson and Jill Stein Handed the Presidency to Donald Trump.” Jezebel went a little further: “Fuck Gary Johnson,” they wrote, “And fuck Jill Stein, too.”
The math behind liberals’ gripes is pretty obvious, even if the logic behind it isn’t. Overall, Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump managed to win the White House by scoring surprise wins in states where he wasn’t expected to win. In the states with the closest results, votes from Libertarians would have more than put Clinton over the top if they had gone for her instead.
In Michigan, where Trump won by fewer than 14,000 votes, Johnson got more than 172,000 votes. If even a fraction of those voters had gone for Clinton instead, she would have won. The same was true next door in Wisconsin, where Johnson won more than 105,000 votes, more than enough to close Clinton’s 37,000-vote gap with Trump.
But if Democrats are looking for someone to blame for putting Trump in the White House, Libertarians say they need to look in the mirror.
Joe Hunter, communications director for the Johnson-Weld campaign, said Johnson is “off the grid” for several days post-election but noted that said it was voters in 50 states, not the Libertarian ticket, that got Trump elected.
“The attacks on Governor Johnson from the left were relentless as it became clear that many millennials and former [Bernie] Sanders voters were looking closely at our ticket,” Hunter said. “If those attacks weren’t quite effective enough for the Clinton camp, it is certainly not our responsibility.”
Likewise, Libertarian leaders in the states with the closest margins rejected any idea that it’s their fault that Clinton lost.
“They have to earn our votes. We don’t owe anybody any votes,” said Shawn Patrick House, the state chairman of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania, who ran in the 16th Congressional District. “That’s why our Libertarian mascot is the porcupine. Don’t step on the porcupine.”
In an Election Night shocker, Trump won the Pennsylvania contest by about 68,000 votes, about half of the 142,000 votes Johnson and Weld won. But House said Pennsylvania Libertarians wouldn’t have voted for the nominees of either major party, who went out of their way to keep Johnson and Weld out of the presidential and vice-presidential debates. “They don’t deserve our votes,” he said. “This is a vote of no consent. By not voting for Republicans or Democrats, we don’t consent to what’s going on.”
In Michigan, where Trump’s margin of victory was even smaller, the Libertarian Party’s state chairman said there are no simple answers to why Trump won but said having a Libertarian on the ticket wasn’t one of them.
“This was a bad state for the Clintons and they spent way too little time here. They got what they deserved, and that’s coming from someone who thinks the Donald is an idiot,” said Bill Gelineau said of the Democrats’ sour grapes. “We have no role in tipping the numbers for or against Donald Trump, and we viewed both of them as equally unqualified for the job.”
Gelineau described Libertarians in the state as an ascendant force that draws equally from both parties, not the vessel of protest votes in a presidential election year. The only way the major parties could do better in the future is to have a better message, he said. “My simple answer is, adopt our ideals of freedom and maybe you’ll earn back some of our voters. I doubt it.”