U.S. Senate contests – explaining success

As Wes Benedict pointed out in a recent message, we had two U.S. Senate campaigns this year that were unusually successful, in terms of vote percentages. Rebecca Sink-Burris received 5.3% of the vote in Indiana, while yours truly got 4.7% in Arizona.

This is the first time in ten years that any Libertarian Senate candidate in a three-way race got more than 4.0%, and while 2010 was generally a good year for Libertarian candidates, these two results were still noteworthy. The median percentage for all 20 of our candidates in U.S. Senate races was less than 1.5%, and the third-place finisher – Jonathan Dine in Missouri – got barely 3%. Clearly, there were exceptional factors at work in both Indiana and Arizona. What were they – and can we learn anything useful from these two contests?

Certainly, one significant factor is that both Indiana and Arizona are strong states for Libertarians in general. The Barr-Root ticket got its highest percentage of the vote in Indiana – partly because they were the only alternative to Obama and McCain – while Arizona ranked fifth among states where both the Libertarian ticket and Ralph Nader were on the ballot. This year, LP candidates for Congress averaged more than 4.5% in Indiana, and about 4.2% in Arizona – well above the national average.

That said, who we run for high-profile offices counts for a lot. Both Rebecca and I were strong candidates, with prior campaign experience and some name recognition going into our respective races. The same cannot be said for every Senate candidate we fielded this year. Many were fine representatives for our party, but some were clearly out of their depth, and at least one was simply embarrassing. He did not use the word “Libertarian” on his campaign material, and had a shaky grasp of libertarian principles. Not surprisingly, he finished near the bottom among our Senate hopefuls. 

But perhaps most important, both Rebecca and I were included in the televised debates in our respective states. In far too many states, Libertarian candidates were arbitrarily excluded from debates, even though they were clearly qualified and credible. And unless you are in the debates, most voters won’t hear about you or take your campaign seriously. If there’s one lesson to be learned from our U.S. Senate races this year, it is that getting into debates and candidate forums is indispensable. The old-party candidates will do their best to ignore and exclude us, but we must do everything we can to be included!