Staff Columnist

Will Midwestern voters buy the Libertarian Party's message in 2020?

Three obstacles between Iowa Libertarians and their goal - king corn, gray-haired voters and big defense

Presidential candidates' nameplates are displayed at the Libertarian Party of Iowa state convention in Des Moines on Sat
Presidential candidates' nameplates are displayed at the Libertarian Party of Iowa state convention in Des Moines on Saturday, Feb. 29 2020. Eight candidates spoke at a forum moderated by Gazette columnist Adam Sullivan (Contributed photo/Bryan Jack Holder)

On paper, the Libertarian Party presidential ticket has a lot of intriguing qualities.

Presidential nominee Jo Jorgensen is a university psychology lecturer who built a million-dollar software company. She’s been in the party nearly 40 years and was nominated for U.S. House and vice president. Her running mate, Spike Cohen, has his own large following as a media personality and an ally of the political satirist Vermin Supreme.

Unlike the Republican and Democratic candidates, as her supporters love to point out, Jorgensen is the only candidate not credibly accused of sexual misconduct. She’s the only woman running among the three largest political parties, although she doesn’t think that should be a factor for voters.

It’s an interesting campaign, but if you put the Libertarian policy agenda up against conventional wisdom about Iowa voters, you see glaring discrepancies. Can they articulate the message of radically limited government to our cornfed electorate?

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The real prize for Iowa Libertarians this year is not the White House, but the 2 percent statewide threshold required to earn official party status. Libertarians achieved that mark in the 2016 presidential election, but lost it in the 2018 governor’s race. Here are three obstacles between Iowa Libertarians and their goal.

King corn

Iowans’ perceived political interests are closely linked to major federal agriculture programs. The Renewable Fuel Standard — which requires transportation fuel to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel, such as ethanol distilled from Iowa corn — has been a rare point of agreement among elected Republicans and Democrats in Iowa, with leaders of both parties calling on President Donald Trump to keep the program intact.

Jorgensen opposes the RFS, and most other federal agriculture spending, but her position comes with trade-offs that might appeal to farmers. Jorgensen would cut federal environmental regulations that are costly to producers and sometimes counterproductive. She also would slash immigration restrictions to bolster the workforce and reverse President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which have been a disaster for Iowa farmers.

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“Libertarians are against corn subsidies and I know that’s a major thing. I realize that, but here’s the problem: When you ask the government for help, there’s a huge price tag attached to it,” Jorgensen told me in a recent interview.

Gray-haired voters

About 17 percent of Iowans are age 65 or older, according to 2018 U.S. census data, putting the state on the high end of the list. Iowa has a lot of old people, and they like to vote.

Perhaps the greatest point of conflict between Libertarians and Iowa’s graying voters is federal entitlements such as Social Security. Some Libertarians advocate for immediately eliminating those programs, but Jorgensen favors an incremental approach.

Jorgensen would allow young people to opt out of Social Security, which she correctly likens to a Ponzi scheme. For older people who have paid into the system for many years, Jorgensen would sell government assets such as military equipment and mineral rights to pay benefits in a lump sum.

“Democrats and Republicans want to keep the system in which the Social Security recipients are just under the whims of Congress. They have to hope Congress gives them a cost-of-living raise or keep up with inflation,” Jorgensen said.

Big defense

An emerging storyline in Iowa politics is the acquisition last year of the former Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell Collins by major military contractor Raytheon. States and districts with large military facilities or major defense contractors sometimes suffer from a “bring home the bacon” mentality that exacerbates the nation’s military spending crisis.

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Raytheon was among the top three military contractors in the world in 2017, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The company is a lobbying powerhouse, and Iowa political leaders have shown a strong interest in its success.

This is one of the biggest contrasts between the third party and the major parties: Republicans and Democrats support ever-increasing military spending, while Libertarians seek to drastically reduce it. The first two issues listed on Jorgensen’s website are the federal debt and “nonstop involvement in expensive and deadly foreign wars.”

Jorgensen’s pitch to voters is that they can direct resources better than the military can.

“OK, you have a choice, you can spend money to build this airplane that’s going to go over to Iraq and cause problems, or ... you can go on vacation. If Americans understood where military dollars are going and how it makes us less safe, they would rather spend those dollars on what they want to,” Jorgensen told me.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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