Staff Columnist

For Iowa's 100,000 third-party voters, 2020 field is wide open

Candidates for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination to visit Iowa

Demonstrators discuss differing opinions at the Johnson County Tea Party's Tax Day rally on the Ped Mall in Iowa City on
Demonstrators discuss differing opinions at the Johnson County Tea Party's Tax Day rally on the Ped Mall in Iowa City on Thursday, April 15, 2010. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The Iowa caucuses are not quite over.

Now that Iowa Republicans and Democrats have sounded off, another presidential nomination contest is starting. This weekend, Libertarian Party of Iowa members will gather for their own caucuses and presidential straw polls. Later this month, 10 Libertarians running for the presidential nomination will appear together in Iowa.

It’s too late for registered voters to switch parties and participate in the Libertarians’ virtual or in-person caucuses Saturday. But there are a couple reasons all Iowans should pay close attention to the state and nation’s largest third-party nominating process.

For one, thousands of us will end up voting for someone besides the Republican or Democrat in the November general election. For another, those who don’t will spend a few months scolding and wagging fingers at third-party voters. Either way, it’s a good idea to start vetting the candidates now.

A large portion of Americans say the country is poorly served by the existing two-party system. That discontent could be emboldened by an incumbent Republican with underwhelming popularity, and a Democratic nominee with her or his own unfavorables.

In 2016, eight third-party candidates appeared on the ballot in Iowa and altogether earned nearly 100,000 votes. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and running mate Bill Weld — both former Republican governors — won about 3.7 percent of the vote, making them by far the state’s most popular third-party ticket last cycle.

Johnson was considered a front-runner for the nomination throughout the 2016 process, but this year’s field is wide open. Delegates elected at the caucuses and state convention will attend the national convention in May, where they will be unbound and free to support whichever candidate they choose.

Libertarians are having lively debates about the party’s future. The key question is whether to once again nominate an established figure with ties to one of the major parties, or go with a bold and die-hard Libertarian activist.


On Feb. 29, I will moderate a presidential candidates forum in Des Moines, part of the Libertarian Party of Iowa’s state convention. Questions submitted by members cover a range of policy points, and also meta issues about the party and its strategy.

Most third-party activists acknowledge winning the White House in the next election is unlikely, but there are other good reasons to support minor presidential candidates. Top-of-the-ticket races help parties build lists of supporters and can create momentum for down-ballot candidates.

Most importantly in Iowa, parties earning 2 percent in a gubernatorial or presidential election gain official party status, which Libertarians achieved in 2016 and lost in 2018. That status entitles parties to the same ballot access as major parties, and also attracts more equitable coverage from the media.

Loyalists to the partisan duopoly worry that third-party candidates sway elections. They claim, without compelling evidence, that recent elections would have turned the other way if not for spoilers.

To that, I say get over it. When parties nominate bad candidates, don’t be surprised when voters look elsewhere.

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