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History of the US Libertarian Party

Updated on March 1, 2018
Daniel Gottlob profile image

Daniel is a mechanical engineer residing in Texas who has worked in various manufacturing, training, and job recruitment functions.

Throughout the lives of those living today in the United States, Republican and Democratic Party has pretty much dominated politics and generally has since the Civil War. While we can look back further to also see Federalists, Whigs, Democratic Republicans, Know-Nothings, and countless others the viability of a third party is often considered questionable at best.

However, as the political climate gets all the more volatile the prospects of third parties taking office become all the more serious especially as they pull votes from the two major parties. In 2016, The Johnson-Weld ticket garnered 3.27% of the popular vote which is the largest dent that party has made on the national stage. Some will even go as far as to contend it was enough of an influence to impact the final electoral college results giving President Trump a slight boost in his favor.

2016 Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson



The Libertarian Party, "The Party of Principle" as their slogan dictates, is quickly growing in relevance as the third largest political party building off of incremental successes starting in the early 70's.

The party was founded in Colorado Springs in December 1971. The party was founded by the late David Nolan, activist and politician, as well as several friends. It came a year after a failed attempt by Ralph Swanson to establish a Libertarian Party in Florida and 5 months after the establishment of the Committee to Form a Libertarian Party. It came during growing resistance to the draft, the Vietnam War and foreign intervention in general; well as the end of the Gold Standard and price controls that came with Nixon's presidency. Generally political philosophies align with the Democratic Liberal Parties on personal freedoms and with the Republican Party on economic freedoms based on present day delineations.

Libertarian Party Symbol


The Party's Growth and Evolution

In 1972, the first Libertarian National Convention was held with John Hospers and Theodora Nathan as the selected presidential and vice presidential candidates for the party. This was notable both in being the first convention and in the fact that it resulted in Theodora Nathan being the first woman to receive an electoral vote. A few years later, the Libertarian Party produced their first state official via Dick Randolph who was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives.

Fast forward to the 1980 Presidential Election and we see the party gain access to the ballot in all 50 states, a feat that prior to that was last achieved by a third party in 1916 by the Socialist Party. During this election, Ed Clark and David H. Koch were on the ballot. Also, millions of dollars in fundraising was spent on the campaign and the Libertarian party succeeded in getting over 1% of the popular vote swaying over one million voters.

In the late 1980's you see division in the party which results in a split vote between Russell Means and former Republican Ron Paul, father of Rand Paul. This ultimately ended in the selection of Ron Paul as the party's candidate.

By the 1990's, the Libertarian party was able to command double digit percentage of the votes in congressional races but still was unable to win congressional elections. Furthermore, in 1996,the Libertarian candidate (Harry Browne) along with other third party candidates, including Ross Perot) were able to carry third party presidential candidate debates.

Most recently, Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico has been the Libertarian candidate during the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections. During the 2016 campaign, he made headlines when he had to ask an interviewer what Aleppo, a Syrian city being devastated by the Syrian civil war was. While the Libertarian Party did not make significant in roads they did have some silver linings at the state level. For example, the Libertarian Party of Texas was able to guarantee access to the ballot when Mark Miller, candidate for Texas railroad commissioner, got 5.3% of the vote exceeding the 5% minimum threshold. This milestone was not achieved at the national level.

What's Next?

One big milestone at a National level is for the Libertarian Party to qualify for public funding. Through the rules of the Federal Election Committee, political parties must garner at least 5% of the vote during the last election. While the Libertarian Party made some strives at the national stage it was still 1.73% away from hitting that very pivotal milestone.


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