Trump courts Libertarians amid mounting concern over third-party candidates

Former President Donald Trump will address the Libertarian Party’s convention Saturday, an unconventional stop for a presumptive Republican nominee but also illustrative of his campaign’s intensifying concern over third-party candidates.

Trump is expected to deliver a pitch to Libertarians focused on their shared grievances over President Joe Biden’s four years in Washington, an event organizer told CNN. His team has also closely watched the results of an informal poll that asked convention attendees which topics Trump should touch on during his remarks.

The outreach to Libertarians follows weeks of stepped-up attacks by Trump aimed at Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose high-profile independent White House bid is increasingly viewed by the former president’s advisers as a potential problem in an election expected to be decided by a narrow margin in a handful of states. Kennedy addressed the convention Friday as the two directly compete for voters disenchanted by the two-party system.

In a speech last weekend to the National Rifle Association, Trump described Kennedy’s political views as “radical left” and warned his supporters, “We can’t waste any more votes.” In a candid moment, Trump also shared the purpose behind his unusual visit to the Libertarian Party.

“We have to join with (Libertarians) because they get their 3% every year, no matter who’s running,” Trump said, “and we have to get that 3% because we can’t take a chance on Joe Biden winning.”

Eight years ago, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson earned more than 3% of the popular vote – a high point in the party’s history. The number of votes Johnson, Green Party nominee Jill Stein and other third-party contenders earned was larger than Trump’s margin of victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in a handful of closely contested battlegrounds.

While Trump’s campaign has downplayed Kennedy’s potential to alter the outcome of the race – one adviser called him “a problem, not a threat” – it is not a risk the former president’s team is willing to write off either.

Johnson, a former GOP governor of New Mexico, told CNN that any third-party concerns by Trump or Biden would be misguided.

“If there were no third-party candidates, 50% of their vote would go to Biden, 50% would go to Trump,” Johnson said. “And a bunch would stay home.”

An unusual invitation and a PR boon

The decision to host Trump and Kennedy has brought outsize media attention to the Libertarian Party at a time when it has struggled to maintain its relevance. Four years after Johnson’s historic finish, the party’s candidate earned fewer than 2 million votes and wasn’t a factor in Biden’s victory.

Convention organizers believe Trump’s speech marks the first time in the modern political era that a presumptive Republican or Democratic nominee will speak at a third-party convention.

Trump appeared eager for the audience. His campaign accepted the invite within 48 hours of the offer, said Angela McArdle, chairwoman of the Libertarian Party. Biden was also asked to speak but didn’t respond.

Kennedy has challenged Trump to debate him at the convention, a request that has gone unanswered.

“I’ve come pretty close to having a major presidential debate at our national convention,” McArdle said. “That’s the purpose. If we don’t get to be in a debate, we’re going to get as close as possible.

“We don’t get the coverage Donald Trump and Joe Biden get. It’s an uphill battle. So this has been a real PR boost.”

Still, McArdle and other Libertarian members are skeptical that convention attendees can be seriously moved by Trump’s overtures.

“These are people who spent thousands of dollars and devoted hundreds of hours to be here in support of their Libertarian candidates,” McArdle said. “No one is worried about them flipping.”

Wendy Hamlin traveled from St. Augustine, Florida, to attend the Washington, DC, convention. The 43-year-old joined the Libertarian Party in 2008, and while she said Trump’s appearance marks a “historical moment” for the party, neither she nor any Libertarian she knows is planning to back him.

“It’s cool to see him speak,” she said. “I don’t know anyone excited to see him because they plan to vote for him.”

The test for Trump is not necessarily to convert die-hard Libertarians. Rather, his team hopes to convince independent-minded voters who are considering a third-party candidate out of dissatisfaction with the Democratic and Republican nominees or to push back against the status quo.

Phil Anderson, a Libertarian running for Senate in the closely watched battleground of Wisconsin, said he’s seen no evidence of the Trump campaign reaching out to Libertarian-leaning voters in his state.

“It’s not happening in Wisconsin because I know all the Libertarians here in one way or another,” Anderson said. “I’m not seeing or hearing evidence of that.”

Trump spokesman Brian Hughes said the campaign has “already demonstrated effective and solid organizational strength as seen in the historic quickness and size of our primary wins and the historic polling numbers in the general.”

“We are reaching out to Libertarians, Republicans, independents and everyone in between,” Hughes said.

Trump is waging a similar – and more urgent – battle to convert Kennedy-curious voters. Kennedy’s support in national surveys has reached double digits – at 16% in a CNN poll conducted last month by SSRS – with strong indications that he is siphoning support from both Trump and Biden.

As the threat has crystalized, so have Trump’s attacks on Kennedy. The former president now regularly attacks Kennedy in public remarks and on social media. Earlier this month, Trump released a lengthy video that labeled Kennedy a “Democrat plant.”

Trump last weekend touched on some kinship between Libertarians and Republicans that could make for a sensible alliance. Libertarians align with conservatives – at least on paper – over a desire for a more limited federal government, lower taxes and less spending but often disagree with Republicans on LGBTQ rights and marijuana policy.

“They are also people of common sense, generally speaking,” Trump said, though he added that Libertarians “have a couple of things that are a little different.”

Johnson doesn’t see much overlap between his party and modern Republicans, including Trump. He cited the massive growth in the national debt and government spending under Trump and the Covid-19 lockdown measures of 2020.

“Bottom line, I didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan the second time because he just blew the lid off the deficit. And that’s Trump,” Johnson said. “There are going to be some things that he has says that the crowd will be receptive to, but there are a lot of things that just don’t fit.”

Indeed, there’s little overlap between Trump’s agenda and the topics convention attendees indicated are a priority in the party’s poll. The top choices included elimination of the federal income tax, ending the Federal Reserve and freeing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

The poll is not scientific but was open only to convention attendees and party members who paid $10 to participate.

The Trump campaign is aware the former president may receive an unfriendly reception from some attendees Saturday night but is arguing such a reaction is a byproduct of being “on offense and competing for nontraditional votes.”

Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller told CNN, “Do we know that it’s not exactly home base? Absolutely. There will be people who want him to be there and people who don’t want him to be there, but we’re on offense and competing for nontraditional votes in order to unite the country.”

Trump ally and former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was loudly booed Friday when he mentioned Trump during his speech to the convention. The reaction suggests when Trump takes the stage Saturday night, he will be speaking to a crowd far different from the kind he is used to addressing at his rallies, which are full of adoring fans who wait in line for hours to see him

D’Anne Welch, 73, has supported Libertarians since 1990, but she’s worried about the party’s embrace of Trump. She’s considering voting for Biden to keep Trump from winning in November. She and her friends, a group of like-minded Libertarians from Texas, brought noisemakers to Washington in hopes of disrupting Trump’s remarks.

“He never should’ve been invited,” Welch said.

Competition for Libertarian votes

Trump is not alone in courting potential Libertarian voters.

Though Kennedy has ruled out the possibility of running on the Libertarian ticket, he has courted party officials dating to before he left the Democratic primary last fall to run as an independent. He met with McArdle in July in Tennessee, where the two discussed shared beliefs, including opposition to vaccine mandates and public health restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kennedy and McArdle met again privately following his appearance at the California Libertarian Party’s state convention in February.

The Libertarian ticket was seen as a possible pathway for Kennedy to circumvent ballot access hurdles and take advantage of the party’s access to ballots in dozens of states. Kennedy is on the ballot in six states so far, compared with 38 states for the Libertarians.

In his remarks at the California convention, Kennedy argued for the benefits of environmental protection while railing against social media censorship and the “totalitarian control” exerted by government during the Covid-19 pandemic. He did not mention Trump by name.

Yet his appearance at the California convention did little to help him gain traction with party members. In an unofficial straw poll of 95 delegates taken at the convention, Kennedy received just one vote. In April, he told ABC News he had ruled out running on the Libertarian ticket.

In recent weeks, Kennedy has ramped up his attacks on Trump, including on his handling of the pandemic. Last weekend, Kennedy’s campaign began selling shirts on its website that read “Vote Trump/Fauci 2024” along with the slogan “Give us another shot!,” a tongue-in-cheek swipe at Dr. Anthony Fauci’s prominent role in the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response.

Kennedy, a staunch anti-war advocate who has said he opposes sending US aid to assist Ukraine’s war effort, has also accused Trump of backing additional aid to Ukraine.

“(Trump) gave a big bear hug to Speaker (Mike) Johnson and President Biden and they agreed to send $64 billion more over to Ukraine. Wouldn’t you rather that 64 billion be spent here in the United States?” Kennedy told supporters during a rally in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.

Following a campaign rally in Colorado on Sunday, Kennedy told CNN he thinks Libertarians will agree with his views on the environment, foreign policy and Covid-19.

“I think a lot of my philosophy and my approach, particularly environmental issues over the many years, my approach is a free-market approach, which appeals to Libertarians,” he said. “I’m against war, which I think is another important issue for Libertarians. I support constitutional rights. President Trump dismantled our constitutional rights during Covid. So I think Libertarians are probably more inclined to support me if they follow their philosophies.”

During his remarks at the convention on Friday, Kennedy issued sharp criticisms of Trump and Biden, but put particular focus on attacking Trump, who he blamed for enacting public health restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“With the lockdowns, the mask mandates, the travel restrictions, President Trump presided over the greatest restriction on individual liberties this country has ever known,” Kennedy said.

Marcus Schuff, a 42-year-old from Temecula, California, said he’s likely going to vote Libertarian in 2024, depending on who wins the presidential nomination this weekend. But if not, he said he’d be most likely to support Kennedy over any other candidate, including Trump. He doesn’t approve of Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic or his foreign policy record.

“The way Trump behaved during the Covid lockdowns, you know, he shut down international trade. He didn’t do anything to keep things open when certain governors of certain states were shutting things down. And his foreign policy wasn’t great either. I don’t think we should be assassinating Iranian generals in Iraq,” Schuff said, referring to the 2020 drone strike ordered by Trump that killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.

“So, I don’t think many Libertarians are going to be swayed by Trump,” he added.

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.

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