The results are in. The campaign of Jo Jorgensen and Spike Cohen…did not meet expectations. We didn’t win, we didn’t get 5%, we didn’t crack into the debates, and it looks like Biden is the major party asshole that one. We had some infighting over charges of pandering, or of people claiming they were too scared of one major party candidate over the other, or that Spike wasn’t a serious candidate, or that the campaign was poorly run, or that Jo was a bad interviewee. It’s a lot of disappointment, and some of those charges have some merit.
However, is that really all there is to the story? Was there no good news for liberty on election night, or in the campaign that preceded it? There, dear reader, I must strongly disagree.
Note: I will only briefly address the major party charges of “you should have run sooner” (she was the first candidate to be nominated, and if the LP nominates any earlier they run into legal issues in some states), “you’re a secret plant for Trump/Biden!” (bullshit, and your candidates were terrible anyway), and “you should have run as a Republican!” (ew, the Republican party hasn’t even paid us lip service in a decade, let alone ever actually being a home for Libertarian ideas, and it’s now an authoritarian cesspool completely overrun by racists, nativists, and protectionists). All of these objections are generally dumb or ignorant.
Let’s start with the negative. A few of the charges fall apart quickly. First, the charge of pandering is complete bullshit, as I’ve discussed at length. And Spike not being a serious candidate? Sure, his primary campaign was a parody campaign in the spirit of Vermin Supreme, and that’s fine. But he got deadly serious as soon as he had the nomination, as this interview and this speech (and pretty much any other public appearance he made) will attest. Jo not being a good interviewee I think is pretty subjective. For my tastes she definitely was not nearly as firery as Cohen, and she did feel like she was perpetually campaigning in 2000, not 2020. She came off as someone wasn’t so much angry as disappointed in Ronald Reagan. On the other hand she was a clear communicator of our ideas, she never compromised the message (see “pandering”, above), she was consistent in every interview she gave, and she definitely got a lot better as the season went on.
The other charges that have been presented do have something to them. I’ve heard some rumblings that the campaigns did not get along with each other, and the Jorgensen campaign especially was reluctant to integrate the infrastructure of the Vermin Supreme/Spike Cohen campaign and the Hornberger campaign into their own. I’d welcome clarification from anyone with more information on that. Certainly anecdotally Jorgensen merch was either not available or very shipping delayed until July or so, which is somewhat damning given that the nomination was secured on May 23 and several candidates ran (for us anyway) strong primary campaigns.
There’s questions of budget and strategy as well, especially concerning TV and social media advertising. Looking at her campaign’s list of expenditures, the biggest expense by far is to Skyline Media. What I don’t know, however (and would love to be illuminated on) is whether that covers ad production, ad purchasing, or both. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard is that there was almost no social media advertising, let alone tv or radio buys, in favor of retail campaigning and the bus tour. I can’t tell from the expense report how true or not that is, but it seems to have some merit to it.
There’s also some lingering questions as to why she didn’t do the minor party debates, although from what I understand CPD rules ban you from their debates if you do someone else’s. It’s lame.
And then there’s the down ballot races. I really thought Donald Rainwater and Ricky Dale Harrington, Jr. were going to win, or at least put up a lot better numbers than they did.
That’s the negative. What about the positive?
First, the vote total. Sure, 1.2%, which is crap, but 1.8 million votes and the LP’s second best finish ever. We had an incredible dollar to vote ratio. We achieved ballot access in all 50 states for the second cycle in a row, despite the usual onerous garbage and even despite the pandemic. We beat back lawsuits to kick our candidates off the ballot. That’s nothing to sneeze at, because all of those people that signed are potential talent for the next go around. Our propaganda game got GOOD. Next, Jorgensen and Cohen campaigned for down ballot LP candidates like no other presidential ticket I’ve ever seen, and my history goes back to the Harry Browne days. Cohen’s social media was a daily barrage of endorsements for Congress, state assemblies, county commissioners, tax assessors, and more. There were regular mailers from the Jorgensen campaign about other candidates. At campaign stops they were regularly greeted (and gave speech time to) local LP affiliate volunteers and elected officials. They made perhaps our first concerted effort to have coattails, and to get the other candidates on them. We won a state house seat in Wyoming, as well as several local races. And while probably negligible in how much impact the LP had in the races, there were pro-liberty victories across the country. In California felons will automatically regain the right to vote, and our disastrous AB5, which basically eliminated independent contractors, has been dealt a huge blow thanks to Prop 22. Gambling was legalized in Nebraska. And most notably, the war on drugs got kicked in the teeth at the ballot box, with every marijuana legalization proposition passing, Washington, DC legalizing (almost) psychadelics, and Oregon decriminalizing everything.
Next, lets look at the positives of the candidate choice and the candidates themselves. The LP finally had a very strong field of presidential contenders this year, with even our satire candidate (Vermin Supreme) and our carpetbagger (Justin Amash) being pretty good. Very importantly, Jorgensen and Cohen were both homegrown talent, not Republican carpetbaggers. We had three cycles in a row of carpetbaggers, with Gary Johnson being a nice guy and certainly libertarian adjacent, but not fully bought in to our ideas. He was the best of the bunch though; Bill Weld and Bob Barr were absolute disasters and had no place in the LP. This time we fielded our own candidates and the results were much better, because the buyin from the candidates was much better. Jorgensen and Cohen both campaigned their asses off. They both hit 48 states on the campaign trail, along with countless appearances on local media and podcasts. They reached out to groups where libertarians had never even existed, let alone had a positive reaction, such as Black Lives Matter groups and Native American groups, in addition to more traditional constituencies for us like tax protests and gun rights groups, all without ever compromising the message or saying anything that wasn’t libertarian.
Which brings me to the biggest takeaway of the election-what Jorgensen and Cohen inspired. Johnson voters were “meh”. Bob Barr voters were desperate. Jorgensen voters though? They’re passionate in a way I haven’t seen, maybe ever in the LP or the broader movement. They believe in Jo, they believe in Spike, and they believe in the message. And they’re a greater diversity of people than I’ve ever seen in the movement. When I started out it was seven old white guys, me, and one of the old white guys’ old white wife. Wonderful people all, to be sure, but not exactly the basis of a mass movement. When I see the all the “I wasted my vote” posts on Jorgensen groups, or when I went to Jorgensen and Cohen events, it’s an amazing mix of young, old, first time voters, party diehards, white, black, latin, asian, straight, bi, trans, all genders and the whole spectrum of America. And they all want better for the world.
They said (depending on how embellished the story is) of both the Velvet Underground and Husker Du that they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one of their records started a band. Jo Jorgensen voters have the exact same energy. They are the ones that are going to be the next wave of libertarian thinkers, activists, candidates, and office holders. They are going to be the ones that change the world.
To summarize: there are real lessons for next time around. Whoever the nominees are, the campaigns need to work with each other and everyone in the primary should have a good plan to pass off their infrastructure to whoever the nominees are. The ground game needs to better. Candidates for the highest office need to be prepared to campaign as their full time job during the duration of the campaign season. Figuring out the CPD mess earlier is important. There are real questions about where money should be spent to have the most impact. But having real, homegrown talent rather than a carpetbagger was far and away the right thing to do. So was reaching out to everyone that would hear us, including groups traditionally considered outside of the libertarian orbit. Taking a vocal, principled stand on the state murdering people not only was the right thing to do, it brought our message to new places and new people. And whoever did the Jorgensen ads this year needs to be rehired by every Libertarian campaign in the future.
There is light in the darkness.
Next: how to keep going and do better. Spoiler alert: it’s not about 2024, or 2022. It’s about 2021.