Election Day 2016 is finally behind us. The shock has worn off, the disappointment has mostly dissipated. Now it’s time to pore over the results, drill down to state, county, and even precinct level, and try to glean what we can from the data.
From that data, analysts are plotting how to fashion future electoral strategy, and looking for electoral opportunities uncovered by this year’s vote totals that might not have been apparent or even have existed before this uncommon election year.
Democrats and Republicans have been doing this since November 9, and have been doing so post-election for decades. It’s time for Libertarians to start doing this, too.
From President-elect Donald Trump’s announced cabinet picks, a Libertarian electoral opportunity may already be in the cards: a special election is expected to fill the seat of Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary.
Price’s constituency—Georgia’s 6th Congressional District—consists of some of Atlanta’s growing, affluent northern suburbs in parts of Fulton, Cobb, and DeKalb counties. The potential for Libertarian electoral inroads in Georgia’s 6th District—and the potential for Trump’s association to cause damage to the Republican brand—starts to crystalize when we look at the district’s demographics and how those played out in the 2016 election results.
First, a stark fall-off in the Republican vote for president: In 2012 Georgia’s 6th District went for GOP nominee Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by a 61 percent to 37.5 percent margin. This year, Trump squeezed past Hillary Clinton by a single percentage point (48 percent to 47 percent) even as Rep. Price was winning re-election with 61 percent of the vote (down from 65 percent in 2012).
The Gary Johnson-William Weld Libertarian ticket’s solid 5 percent tally in Georgia’s 6th District over-performed its statewide and national percentage, stretching past 7 percent in some precincts.
Georgia is a state whose upward demographic trends encouraged confident Clinton strategists to talk up as a possible upset. According to The Almanac of American Politics, Georgia’s 6th District leads the Peach State in income level, ranking 39th out of 435 congressional districts nationwide. Over half the district’s workers are white collar, more than one out of five have put in some post-graduate study.
Trump’s anti-trade and anti-immigrant rhetoric that riled up white working class voters up in the Rust Belt and Georgia’s stagnant rural redoubts turned off thousands upon thousands of business-minded voters in Georgia’s 6th District. In the district’s Cobb County, Clinton became the first Democrat to carry the county since favorite son Jimmy Carter did so in 1976, attracting 27,000 more votes than Obama earned in 2012. Meanwhile, Trump slumped in the 6th District, tallying 20,000 fewer votes than Romney.
Previously considered a “safe Republican” seat, this new data led Roll Call to suggest that the special election in Georgia’s 6th District “could offer” an “opportunity for Georgia Democrats.” But if wariness of Trump does offer an opportunity, from their post-election rhetorical positioning, Democrats don’t seem ready to exploit it.
In the wake of Trump’s surprise bursting of the “blue firewall” (be it “blue state” or “blue collar”), Democrats are doubling down on their trade-bashing and anti-rich guy rhetoric, seeking to win back the scare points they scored against Republicans for so many decades, when the white working class was the dominant demographic.
But bashing big business and billionaires doesn’t look like the way to wring out more Democratic votes in a congressional district with a disappearing blue collar work force and an apparent respect for economic success. If the uber-unpopular Hillary Clinton could grow her vote totals significantly past Barack Obama’s historic gains in Georgia’s 6th District, it clearly wasn’t from class warfare appeals to an educated, upwardly mobile suburban electorate.
Trump’s post-election pressuring of the Carrier corporation risks reinforcing distaste for the president-elect among those voters. The Republican nominee in a special congressional election will find him or herself in the awkward position of having to defend or critique this economic heavy-handedness from a GOP president.
A strong, mainstream Libertarian candidate could be better positioned than a Democratic candidate hamstrung by national Democrats’ business-bashing to hit a Republican candidate on this issue. One can also be certain that a Georgia Democrat could only offer “me-too but more” as a response to Trump’s proposed abomination of a trillion dollar infrastructure spending orgy. A Libertarian could be uniquely poised to take the fiscally sane position against that boondoggle.
There is little evidence that Libertarian social issue positions would be a hindrance in a general election in the 6th District. Rare for a Southern district, Price’s predecessor was re-elected despite being avowedly pro-choice. Clinton’s relative success in the 6th District was probably abetted by comfort with her social positions, on top of averseness to Trump’s economic strongman bluster assailing free trade and immigration.
Speaking of the Republican primary: How much fealty to Trump’s agenda will its voters demand? If a Trumpkin minority can extract allegiance, or at least acquiescence, to Trumpian nationalism as the price of winning a nomination, the Republican nominee can expect to be as hobbled as Trump was in this district.
There’s actual electoral evidence that a Libertarian-branded candidate pairing social tolerance with voicing support for markets can win votes in a constituency similar in electoral record and demographics to Georgia’s 6th District. In his 2013 record-breaking Virginia gubernatorial run, Libertarian Robert Sarvis’ “Open-minded & Open for Business” message pulled in precinct percentages reaching 17 percent in Richmond’s affluent, educated New South suburbs. (Disclosure: I served as the strategist that ran Sarvis’ campaign.)
To be able to run on a similar vote-winning platform emphasizing social as well as economic freedom, a libertarian candidate in this race would need that capital “L” to reinforce his or her brand, triangulating against both the GOP on nationalism and social conservatism, and Democrats on economic regulation, both agendas which appear unpopular with Georgia’s 6th District voters.
Georgia’s peculiar election laws render this particular electoral opportunity even more intriguing. A vestige of the old Democratic “solid South,” Georgia election law requires a candidate to win an outright majority. If no candidate wins 51 percent, voters go back to the polls for a runoff between the top two finishers a few weeks later. A Libertarian squeaking into a runoff against either a Republican or Democrat has a host of issues with which to appeal to voters of the candidate from the party eliminated from the first round.
Versus a Trump-tied Republican, the Libertarian can be the ultimate anti-Trump messenger, appealing to the Democratic candidate’s first round voters by vowing to stand up to the incoming administration on immigration or social issues. Versus a business-bashing Democrat, the Libertarian can boast that he or she can be trusted to stand up to Trump on trade barriers, Oval Office corporate-strong arming, or any proposed stimulus spending.
It’s especially vital for Libertarians to dig into the numbers in the wake of Election 2016. This year’s Libertarian presidential ticket broke records in vote totals, for the first time garnering enough actual votes to create electoral data sufficient for analysis.
The eyes of the media that devoted unprecedented mainstream coverage to the Johnson-Weld ticket are open, curious to see if the Libertarian Party can build on its 2016 advances and become an electorally significant force, or if it will simply slide back into irrelevance. Also open are the eyes of nearly 4.5 million (and counting) Libertarian presidential ticket voters who like the brand they voted for, and look forward to similarly viable Libertarian choices in contests to come.
A local Libertarian has declared for the seat in Georgia’s 6th District, but doesn’t seem to have the experience or local standing to draw much attention at this point. Should Libertarians maintain their usual complacency by running “Some Dude”—as the data nerds at DailyKos describe a Democratic candidate who can’t muster a strong campaign against a GOP incumbent—they would squander a unique opportunity in Georgia.
Outreach should begin now, as well as a deep dive into the Libertarian Party database of previous donors. A leader in Georgia’s 6th District’s business community could wage a competitive run, and prove to national observers watching the first congressional special election of the Trump era that Libertarians can carry the ball forward.