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Can the Libertarians trump The Donald?

On June 23, 2016, #LibertarianTownHall trended on Twitter in the U.S. for two hours. At its peak, #LibertarianTownHall fell behind only #NoBillNoBreak (in reference to the House Democratic sit-in to protest congressional inaction on curbing gun violence) and #BB18 (the official hashtag for the newest season of Big Brother).

Like all third parties in the United States, the Libertarian Party is usually a blip on the media’s radar screen. During the election season, third parties are usually discussed in the context of how they help or hurt one of the two major-party candidates. When the election is over, it’s usually hard to find any mention of the Libertarian Party or their candidates.

Usually. But this is no usual year.

This year, the Libertarian Party will be relevant for a number of reasons.

Many Americans define themselves as economically conservative but socially liberal. That falls in line with the Libertarian philosophy, which eschews government involvement in either the private sector or citizens’ personal lives.

Both parties have been badly tarnished by the obstruction during the Obama years and a media system that relishes controversy while ignoring compromise, and voters are leaving both parties to become independents in record numbers. The Republican Party has been faring a little worse in public opinion polling, and the Libertarian Party–which echoes the “limited government” philosophy of the GOP could be the beneficiary of this shift.

This is reflected in the presidential choices. The unpopularity of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton–which mirror the unpopularity of both parties–could shift more attention to the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. But once again, the GOP is faring worse than the Democratic side here. Donald Trump’s divisive candidacy has left many Republicans looking for an alternative, and many may look to the Libertarian Party to still cast a vote for president when they can’t bring themselves to pull the lever for Trump.

The Libertarian Party’s opening may come in the Mountain West. The West is more independent and libertarian by nature, and went heavily for Ted Cruz in the Republican Primary, displaying an antipathy to Trump. One could see Johnson winning a state like Utah, where Mormon voters are repulsed by Trump, but are looking for an alternative to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But the real contest right now is for the presidential debate stage. If Gov. Gary Johnson is polling at 15% or more in the run-up to the presidential debates, he will be on the stage with Trump and Clinton. At that point, given this unique political year, all bets would be off.

Will the Libertarian Party be able to succeed in becoming more than just a passing thought every four years? Will they be able to parlay a strong showing into future success in future years and down the ballot? They’ve got their opening here in 2016 –let’s see if they can take advantage.

Kelsey Chapekis contributed to this post.

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