I want Justin Amash to be president. I'm not sure he should run in 2020.
What can a run on the Libertarian Party ticket realistically accomplish?
Late Tuesday night, at a markedly unconventional hour for the task at hand, Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) announced his exploratory committee for the Libertarian Party nomination for president. "Americans are ready for practical approaches based in humility and trust of the people," he tweeted. "Let's do this."
I would love to see Amash in the White House. His current campaign website is hardly more than a photo, but when his policy pages are published, I expect very little with which I'll disagree.
Yet I don't know that I'm sold on the strategy of the thing. Wanting Amash to win is not necessarily the same as wanting him to run in 2020.
Amash came to Congress five terms ago as a Republican, albeit one who routinely bucked the party line. Last year, frustrated by craven partisanship, he left the GOP and spent 10 months as the House of Representative's sole independent member before officially becoming the first-ever Libertarian in Congress this week.
At the time of his "declaration of independence" from the Republican Party, I argued against a Libertarian presidential run for Amash, particularly this cycle. That's not because he couldn't be a compelling candidate: A 40-year-old Eastern Orthodox Christian of Syrian and Palestinian descent, he's the son of immigrants and married to his high school sweetheart. As a member of Congress, he has proven diligent, principled, and a nimble, sympathetic speaker. Amash has consistently called out President Trump's lies and excesses, supporting his impeachment even while they shared a party.
And, crucially for anything involving libertarianism generally and the Libertarian Party specifically (I say this as a libertarian), Amash is normal. Unlike recent Libertarian candidates past, you don't have to wonder if he's currently high or perhaps involved in a murder in Belize. It's plausible an Amash nomination would be the party's best ticket ever.
So what gives me pause? There are three big strategic considerations. The first is the argument I made last summer: All the appeal in the world won't sweep away the institutional barriers to third-party success. Obtaining ballot access in all 50 states is an enormous project for third parties, and coronavirus lockdowns are adding to its difficulty this year. Even if the Libertarian Party swings universal ballot access, our voting system is not friendly to third-party contenders. Amash's insistence that he "wouldn't be running if there weren't enough votes to win this race" is ... optimistic, at the very least.
Of course, realist libertarians will tell you the point of a good third-party campaign isn't electoral victory. The point is to cross the 5 percent popular vote threshold to get federal matching grants (whether the Libertarian Party would accept the money is debatable) and/or the 15 percent polling threshold to be invited to the general election debates. The 2016 ticket was the most successful in party history but fell short on both counts: Then-nominee Gary Johnson took 3.27 percent of the popular vote. His polling support peaked at 13 percent in a single survey; more often it registered around 7 to 10 percent. He did not debate.
Could Amash do better? That brings us to the second consideration, namely that Amash will play spoiler, a claim already being made in connection to both presumptive major party nominees. At never-Trump conservative site The Bulwark, Sarah Longwell and Tim Miller use vote data from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2016 to argue Amash could deliver the election to Trump. Meanwhile, at Spectator USA, Daniel McCarthy claims Amash will function as a Joe Biden surrogate "because he can be trusted to bash Trump more than Biden."
I find The Bulwark's case more convincing than the Spectator's (some initial polling sees Amash narrowing Biden's Michigan lead by 6 points), but even that is no certain thing (anti-Trump social conservatives favored Hillary Clinton over Johnson last time by a surprisingly large margin). My own suspicion is having Trump in the race creates a unique polarization and partisanship that wouldn't be duplicated in a Trump-free cycle like 2024. Here in Minnesota, I'm getting ads warning the United States of America literally will not survive as a country if Trump is re-elected. If that's the tenor of this election, the electorate may prove stubbornly spoiler-resistant — which is to say, stubbornly disinterested in getting the Libertarian nominee to the 5 or 15 percent goals, let alone outright victory.
The third consideration is about Amash himself: Running for president means he's not really running for Congress anymore, even though that race offered a far more attainable win. "I don't intend to return to my congressional campaign," Amash told Reason. "When I'm looking at my polling, and fundraising, and other aspects with respect to the congressional campaign, I felt I was in the driver's seat. I felt that I was in a very strong position to win it. ... But I just think this is too important."
It is important, but so was having Amash in Congress. Maybe I'm too cautious or cynical, but I'd have much preferred to hang onto that bird in the hand.
Still, if Amash is nominated, I'll certainly vote for him, and I'd be overjoyed if he made it to the debates. And who knows? Maybe if Amash debated, he'd have a real chance. Without any accusations of sexual assault or unacknowledged dementia, he's got a leg up on Trump and Biden before he even opens his mouth.
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