With the selection of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, a lot of disgruntled anti-Trump conservatives have been looking for a new place to call home. Some people think that the Libertarian Party, which is the only third party in the country likely to have ballot access in all 50 states come the fall, could be that new home. The current front-runners for the Libertarian nod are 2012 nominee and former two-term governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson, antivirus pioneer and potential crazy person John McAfee, and longtime Libertarian Austin Petersen. I spoke with Nicholas Sarwark, the chairman of the national Libertarian Party’s executive body, about what his party’s nominating process will look like, what Trump’s presumptive nomination means for Libertarians’ political fortunes, and the possibility that his party might be taken over by an anti-Trump faction of the GOP, as has been rumored. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Stahl: In the Washington Times on March 30 you were quoted as saying that the party had been approached by candidates who had dropped out of the “old party races about running on the Libertarian Party Ticket,” and that you had discussed logistics with them. How would that process work?
Nicholas Sarwark: [Here are] the requirements to be our candidate: You have to be a member of the Libertarian Party and you have to be nominated by at least 30 delegates [at our Memorial Day] convention [in Orlando, Florida]. None of our delegates are bound in the way that the Republican or Democratic delegates would be. So everybody gets to vote their conscience. Basically, we’re all superdelegates.
Historically, how much control over the process and control over individual delegates has the party had? Like, could you call up 30 delegates tomorrow and get me nominated?
So the national party actually has zero control over the delegates aside from that I am a delegate from Arizona so I have my own vote. Could I probably twist the arms of 30 people if I wanted to? I could. I just think that would be an improper use of my position of chair. So I’ve been very neutral in this race, refusing to endorse or back any particular candidate for the presidency.
It sounds like it’s incredibly open.
We have both a very open process and a very difficult process at the same time. A Mitt Romney, or a Rick Perry, or a Tom Coburn, or anybody could join the party, probably get on star power alone 30 people to nominate them, but then you have to get a majority of close to 1,000 Libertarians to decide that you’re Libertarian enough for them. It’s that retail side that really is our best protection against any sort of takeover.
How possible do you think such a takeover would be? Do you think any element of the party would be amenable to it, and do you think there are reasons to be amenable to it? It seems to me that one reason to be open to a takeover is—depending of course on ideology lining up and being able to convince delegates and all those factors—that a big-name candidate like, say, a Mitt Romney could get you the 15 percent in national polls that you need to get on the general election debate stage with Trump and Clinton.
That theory and that scenario would probably be attractive to some number of delegates. I don’t think it would be attractive to a majority of delegates sufficient to get the nomination, precisely because if you go back to ‘08 we nominated Bob Barr, a former congressman, with exactly those thoughts … and it didn’t work out that way. We actually got lower vote totals compared to other Libertarian candidates with less résumé.
Has Bill Kristol, who has taken it upon himself to lead the anti-Trump third party movement, reached out to you about this type of merger?
Mr. Kristol has not reached out to me. Although, he can probably find me. I mean you found me. It’s not that hard.
Since you told the Washington Times on March 30 that you had former major party candidates reaching out to you expressing interest in the Libertarian nomination, have anymore reached out, or have you heard more from the same people?
Not to run, no. We’ve had some high level defections [such as] Mary Matalin switching her voter registration. Our daily membership numbers, like dues paying card-carrying numbers, have doubled and almost tripled. Donations are way up.
But I have not seen the interest in trying to come in as some sort of white knight into the convention. This is my kind of personal take on it: The Never Trump people, while they’re very serious as far as how they feel, they’ve never been serious in terms of getting anything done. We’ve been doing this for 45 years and we understand the logistics of how you get 50-state ballot access. And there was not a single move from a Kristol, or an [Erick] Erickson, or a Romney, or anybody to do any of the things that would be necessary, and the Texas deadline [for an independent run] was [Monday]. There’s no there there, and that’s going to be the hard reality for all the Never Trump people, and eventually all the Never Hillary people. If you’re Never Trump and you’re Never Hillary, the Libertarian Party is going to present you the only option for every American in this country. So you can pick it or you can not, but this idea that you’re going to have some sort of quixotic bid from Romney or something as an independent, it’s just—it’s batshit basically.
Yeah, ballot access is the main issue.
The sweet irony is that it’s the very Republicans that are currently gnashing their teeth who set up these horrible ballot access barriers to try to suppress the Libertarian Party in the first place. So I hope they’re enjoying that.
They’re talking about possible legal challenges, specifically to the Texas rules.
I think that would be awesome for the Republicans, who put up that stupid barrier to voter choice, [to] spend money on the lawyers [to get rid of it].
This is a long game for the Libertarian Party. We’re the only party other than the two old ones that have their own national headquarters. We’re not going anywhere, so it would be nice to have them fight one of our fights for us. Because I think that the Texas requirements are probably unconstitutionally early. It’s just that it’s expensive to sue the state of Texas.
Let’s talk potential outside-the-party candidates. You retweeted a Libertarian Senate candidate who listed Gary Johnson, Rand Paul, Ron Paul, and Rep. Justin Amash as possible Libertarian candidates who could pull in the Never Trump forces. Do you think those latter three candidates would have appeal in the party? And what about the Ben Sasses of the world and the Mitt Romneys of the world and these other people that have been talked about by Bill Kristol as third-party possibilities?
Let’s start with the Ben Sasses and the Mitt Romneys: They’re not serious. They’re not willing to do what is necessary. They have sunk cost in the existence of the Republican Party, which is a joke. I mean, any party that can encompass Donald Trump and Rand Paul is not a party that means anything. They’ll never walk away. They’ll never endorse somebody outside of the Republican Party. And if I had to bet, as much as I’d like Mr. Romney to endorse the Libertarian candidate once we have a nominee, I would bet he won’t. I would bet he’d rather sit on his hands. Because he’s dedicated to the party moreso than to the country. Same with Sasse. He’s just trying to get a name for himself by going through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief in public, but he’s not going to do anything. That’s the take that I have right now and I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
When it comes to the Pauls and Mr. Amash, if you’re asking me handicapping, having attended all of the national conventions since 2000? I think the elder Dr. Paul would have a good chance at the nomination. He had the nomination in 1988. He’s a life member of the party. So while he was elected as a Republican, he still has strong ties to the LP. The younger Dr. Paul is kind of precluded right now. He basically said he’s going to follow through with his pledge to support Trump. I doubt that he wants to give up his Kentucky Senate seat and the law in Kentucky is still that you’re only allowed to run for one thing. He might [also] be affected by sore loser laws. Mr. Amash, I think he’s somewhere in between. I think he would be more popular than Sen. Paul but probably less popular than Congressman Paul. He’s one of the few that looks like he’s a little bit more serious. But he also has the same issue, right, which is if you switch before an election and you’re sitting in Congress, your re-election for Congress becomes harder even if you live in a state where you can run for both offices.
What about Tom Coburn?
He’s good fiscally. As I recall some of his social issues don’t really mesh well, although that’s been—that can be sold to the party, if you look at Barr or you look at Ron Paul’s pro-life stance. The party does make compromises internally and it’s always a judgment call for the delegates and that’s what makes this convention so exciting, because people have to weigh the pros and cons of everybody and everybody has a lot of pros and a lot of cons. I think Coburn would have a shot. He’s been kind of out of the picture for a while so it’s hard to say.
It seems to me like all of the potential for voter defections is on the Republican side.
Just you wait until [Bernie] Sanders gets boxed out by that corporate shill. There will be a reckoning.
You think that there’s going to be a serious Green Party run this time?
I respect Dr. [Jill] Stein [the 2012 Green Party nominee]. I think we have a better chance to pick up a lot of the Sanders supporters than she does. Some of the economic stuff, yeah she’s a little more in line, but there’s going to be multiple states where she’s not even an option. And frankly they just don’t have the organization and the money. Ever since Nader bowed out, there’s not a lot of there there. Our party kind of shifted gears a little bit and went from the celebrity thing to the doing the work in the trenches and building up and building up and building up. I think we’re much better poised to take advantage of an election cycle where you have two candidates with the highest negatives of the modern era. If we still allowed dueling, they probably would be [doing that]. This is like founding era stuff, the level of hatred. It’s bad. People really hate Hillary Clinton. People really hate Donald Trump. Just with a deep visceral hatred that they don’t have for most people. It’s a special time.