Libertarian Party set to pick nominee at convention

Story highlights

  • The Libertarian Party will to hold its national convention in Orlando, Florida
  • Many expect Gary Johnson to once again secure the nomination

Orlando, Florida (CNN)They get the bronze medal every four years in what is really a two-person race.

That's what it must feel like to be a third-party candidate in a two-party country.
But between Donald Trump's abrupt takeover of the GOP and Bernie Sanders' climb from long-shot Democratic candidacy to head of a national progressive movement, 2016 has been a year for party outsiders. And Libertarians hope that could give them an opening.
    What gives them hope?
    The likely Democratic and Republican nominees each have historically high unfavorable numbers. Media attention for the party, both the national committee chairman and the party's political director say, is at unprecedented levels.
    So it is with an air of opportunity to break out of obscurity that Libertarians, members of the country's most prominent third party, have gathered for their national convention in Orlando, Florida, this weekend to officially pick a candidate to pitch to angry voters.
    Many expect former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential nominee in 2012, to leave Orlando Sunday evening once again his party's standard-bearer.
    Since last week, Johnson has made the rounds touting his newly minted alliance with former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who is seeking the party's vice presidential nomination. The two former governors, who both also happen to be ex-Republicans, are fielding a ticket of sorts, although the Libertarians elect their nominees separately and no formal ticket will exist at the convention until the party selects its presidential and vice presidential nominees.
    But Johnson and Weld first have to navigate an openly hostile convention, characterized by its insular proceedings and unwelcome to moderates.
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    Weld will have to overcome meaningful differences between his demonstrated policy preferences, particularly past support for gun control measures, and his willingness to support Republican politicians. Just this year, the colorful former governor endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president.
    His supposed transgressions from Libertarian orthodoxy have earned him outright disdain from many of the party's attendees. He received loud boos at his introduction to the party's vice presidential debate, where he stuck to reciting his conservative bona fides and applauded his opponents on stage.
    "We are not Republican-light," Larry Sharpe, a vice-presidential candidate said in a takedown of the Johnson-Weld ticket mere inches away from the former Massachusetts governor.
    Asked after the debate, Weld said he thought such attacks "were not an issue one way or another."
    Despite his bruising reception, Johnson said he would strongly prefer not to continue his bid without Weld, arguing they were "arguably the two most Libertarian governors that ever served."
    Weld has made headlines since his entry into the race for comparing Trump's proposal to deport all undocumented immigrants to Kristallnacht, a 1938 pogrom remembered to this day for brutality against the Jewish people in the leadup to WWII. For his part, Johnson has said he "absolutely" stands by the bold comparison.
    Weld doubled down on this kind of rhetoric at the convention, saying that should Trump win the presidency, "We will be the rogue nation. We will be the North Korea."
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    Johnson, meanwhile, has several serious challengers gunning for the top spot on the third-party ticket.
    Among them is Austin Petersen, a young, hardcore party advocate with strong backing in Libertarian Internet circles. He recently announced the endorsement of Mary Matalin and Erick Erickson, vocal anti-Trump conservatives.
    Petersen rolled through the convention, glad-handing delegates and circling back to his open-door suite, filled with meatballs and alcohol for supporters. He belted out insults for Trump, calling him "Cheetos-faced" and "fascist" as his supporters, who he called "freedom ninjas," hollered in support.
    However, in a party that generally swings liberal on social issues, Petersen is unabashedly anti-abortion. He is also 35 years old.
    Also expected to post significant support is notorious entrepreneur John McAfee, a man who has forged an international identity after becoming a pioneer in the field of cybersecurity. Last fall, McAfee launched a presidential bid under the banner of his newly formed political organization, the Cyber Party. As the fall continued, McAfee declared his intention to seek the nomination of the Libertarian Party.
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    Building off of his name, his intense personality and his sweeping command of Libertarian sweet spots, McAfee has made a serious bid for the top of the ticket.
    Although McAfee has little history with the party and no experience governing, his controversies -- including going into hiding following the shooting death of a businessman near his island compound in Belize -- and his lack of political experience may actually make up for it. In an election cycle dominated by a brash billionaire and reality TV star, McAfee's libidinous, shadowy, drug-fueled history and cavalier demeanor occasionally might not hurt much in a party built on opposing government control.
    The primary has become somewhat contentious and McAfee has repeatedly said that he will not support Johnson if the former New Mexico becomes the nominee.
    Petersen said he would "pull it for Gary" if the former New Mexico governor won the nomination. Weld said he wasn't sure what he'd do if Johnson was not the nominee.
    "I'm in this because of Gary Johnson," Weld said.

    The Libertarian nominee will appear in ballots in 50 states, but...

    Of course, securing the nomination is only one step -- and an extremely easy one, relatively speaking -- on the path to a Libertarian presidency.
    The eventual nominee, whoever it is, will have to compete in the general election, where the odds of victory for the Libertarian Party stand at roughly zero.
    As the Libertarian nominee in 2012, Johnson netted .99% of the popular vote, a figure that stands as the party's second strongest showing ever. He fared worse in the Electoral College, translating his support in the popular vote to a total of zero electoral votes.
    If that performance repeats itself in the 2016 general election, it will mark the 12th cycle in a row where no third party has earned a single vote in the Electoral College.
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    Compared to other years and other third parties, however, the Libertarians have plenty to feel good about. The Libertarian Party has navigated the multitude of onerous requirements for ballot access in all 50 states, a task unaccomplished by any other third party.
    Put more simply, the Libertarian nominee will be the only name outside of the mainstream choices on the presidential ballot in all 50 states on November 8.

    On the ballot, but not the debate stage

    Johnson, echoing many other third-party candidates, regularly stresses the Libertarian Party's need to join the presidential debates. Inclusion in the presidential debates requires strong poll performance, which, of course, requires inclusion in the polls themselves.
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    There is some reason to expect the Libertarian Party might outperform expectations should its nominee become a regular point in poll surveys this year. A recent national poll showed Johnson receiving 10% support among registered voters.
    From the "Never Trump" crowd to the nascent "Bernie or bust" movement, the eventual Libertarian nominee might have room to grow a base and shake up the already volatile presidential race.