Can the Libertarians' "10 percent strategy" pay off in Iowa?

The Libertarian Party of Iowa convened on April 24 to nominate several candidates for statewide offices. The Libertarian candidate for governor is Eric Cooper, a neuroscience expert in the Iowa State University Psychology department. In his speech to the delegates, Cooper said frankly that the Libertarian Party had not been effective in the past. He laid out a "10 percent strategy" for Libertarians to "get everything we want without ever winning an election." You can watch Cooper's whole speech here, but I posted a rough transcript of some interesting parts after the jump.

Excerpts from Libertarian candidate for governor Eric Cooper's April 24 speech to the Libertarian Party state convention (transcribed by me):

Our key is that we have to give up the notion that we're going to win elections, because when you talk to reporters, if you are running for a partisan race [...] and you act like you're going to win the race, the reporters don't take you seriously. They act like you're a crazy person, and that's not good. People don't want to be around and talk to crazy people, ok?

We can be free without winning elections, and that's how third parties have worked in American history. I want to lay out what I call the 10 percent strategy for you, and I need you to be ambassadors around the state for this strategy.

Here's the strategy. In this election, what I'm going to try and do is get the 2 percent that we need to get major-party status, and that's going to make it way easier for all of us to get on the ballot in the future. [...] That's 2010.

Now, 2012: Let's think about the partisan offices there are in this state. There are 100 Iowa House seats. There are 50 Iowa Senate seats. There are five U.S. House seats, two senators, and then about 10 or so offices at the state level. So, what we're talking about is we need 167 people to run for us. [...]

What we need to tell people is, we are not trying to win the election. We are trying to get 10 percent of the vote on a regular basis. If a third party can get 10 percent of the vote on a regular basis, it forces the major parties to steal their issues in order to poach their voters. We can get everything we want without ever winning an election, and this is something third parties have done throughout American history. [...]

More than any other time, there are people who want a smaller government. We have that smaller-government message. At least 10 percent of the population right now is libertarian. If they can understand the strategy that when you see a Libertarian candidate on the ballot, that is somebody who wants smaller government. And if you further tell them look, if this is a race where one of the major-party candidates is way ahead, you can do a lot more for the cause of smaller government by voting for that Libertarian than adding one more vote onto the major candidates' totals. You need to spread this [....]

Cooper explained that many people tell him they don't have time to run for office. He imagined a comical combination of simultaneous stressful life events, adding,

I still think even somebody in those awful circumstances would have 20 minutes to hire a high school kid to get 50 signatures for them. And that's all we're asking you to do. You don't have to campaign during campaign season if you don't want you, but we need you on the ballot as a Libertarian, and so I gotta believe if you have the commitment to liberty that I think you do, that everybody in this room should be willing to get 50 signatures and get on that ballot.

You know, in the past when people fought for freedom, they were expected to take up arms. I'm not asking you to take up arms, I'm asking you to get 50 signatures, and I gotta believe there are 167 people in this state that care enough about liberty they're willing to do that.

So, let's get the 2 percent we need, let's get major-ballot access, let's get 10 percent for our candidates in 2012 and let's be free, everybody.

More video clips of Cooper can be found on YouTube here. CBS published this profile of him after the 2008 election. I can see why he made a "splash" at the Iowans for Tax Relief event on April 17. Kathie Obradovich said Cooper "upstaged the major-party contenders" who appeared at the rally with comments like this one:

"Our current government's piled up so much debt that children who haven't even been born yet are going to be taxed their entire lives paying off the debts that we've created," he said. "Now that's taxation without representation in its purest form."

Cooper supported Ron Paul for president in 2008 and has run as a Libertarian for the Iowa legislature five times. Most recently, he received more than 20 percent of the vote in Iowa House district 46 against Democrat Lisa Heddens, who did not have a Republican opponent in 2008. The Iowa State University Daily covered his gubernatorial campaign here. He should have little trouble collecting the 1,500 signatures he needs to get on the ballot this year, and if he can get some media exposure this fall, he could easily win 2 percent of the statewide vote, especially if Terry Branstad becomes the Republican nominee for governor. Some conservatives have said they won't support Branstad, in part because of his record on taxes and spending. This week WHO talk radio personality Steve Deace slammed the former governor in a column for the Washington Times.

If Cooper exceeds 2 percent of the vote, Libertarian candidates will find it much easier to run for the Iowa House and Senate in 2012. However, maintaining a statewide vote of at least 2 percent will be a big hurdle for Libertarians in Iowa.

The Green Party briefly had major-party status in Iowa after Ralph Nader won more than 2 percent of the statewide vote in 2000, but the Greens were unable to clear the 2 percent threshold in most other races around the state. The collapse in the Green vote isn't surprising, because Nader wasn't pushing a Green Party platform or ideology in the 2000 campaign. Instead, he was trying to secure protest votes against what many saw as the lack of substantive differences between Democrats and Republicans.

Unlike Nader, Cooper is not trying to win votes by claiming there's no difference between the two major parties. To convince people they're not throwing their vote away, he offers a frame for viewing third-party votes as a way to achieve change without winning elections. He cites real historical examples of American third parties (the Populists and Socialists) getting major parties to adopt some of their policies.

I think Cooper correctly identifies students as a major source of potential support for Libertarians. Young people are much more likely to hold libertarian positions on social issues like abortion, gay marriage and drug policy. The Republican Party can talk about cutting taxes and the size of government, but as long as social conservatives control the GOP platform, many young people will be repelled.

Share any thoughts about Cooper, Libertarians or third-party strategy in this thread.

  • Cooper

    I wish Mr. Cooper all the luck in the world when it comes to taking votes from Terry or Bob.  

    • me too!

      But he might take some college students' votes who would otherwise consider voting Democrat.

      Mostly I was just impressed listening to him talk. It is not easy to make a convincing case for voting for a third-party candidate.

  • "Iowa Party"

    What happens if Narcisse breaks the 2% barrier? As far as I can tell, his party is pretty much a party of one. So would the "Iowa Party" get major party status? Could anyone then get on the ballot as an "Iowa Party" candidate?

Login or Join to comment and post.