Virginia’s Libertarian Surge That Wasn’t

As Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli duked it out during the second debate of the Virginia governor’s race last month, Robert Sarvis was on the sidelines, ribbing both candidates on Twitter. Sarvis, who’s running for governor as a Libertarian, was polling at 7 percent, a surprisingly high number for a third-party candidate in Virginia. He wasn’t invited to participate in the debate, and his irritation was plain. “Audience needs a shower after all that mudslinging,” he tweeted, adding, “Debate would’ve been more substantive with me on stage. That’s a sure thing. Next time, VA!”

The final debate will take place on October 24 at Virginia Tech, and Sarvis has been gunning for an invitation for weeks. But although he’s been polling between 8 and 12 percent for the past month, it looks like he’ll be exiled to Twitter once again. Under an agreement negotiated by Cuccinelli, McAuliffe, and the debate’s sponsor, a local television station, Sarvis needed to be polling at 10 percent or above as of yesterday to get into the debate. The latest aggregate shows him at 9 percent.

Nevertheless, his unusually strong showing has led many to wonder whether Sarvis, who was initially deemed so unimportant that he wasn’t included in horse-race polls at all, might be a deciding factor in this year’s race. His performance also raises questions about future elections. Could the Libertarian Party be making inroads in Virginia?

Based on Virginia’s electoral history, Sarvis’s success in the polls is a minor miracle. The Old Dominion has some of the country’s strictest ballot-access rules for third-party candidates, and as a result, they often don’t enter state-level races at all. The last time a Libertarian ran in a Virginia gubernatorial race was in 2001, when the candidate earned less than 1 percent of the vote. Since 1925, only one non-major party candidate has come close to leading the state, and the circumstances were unusual. In 1973, Democrat-turned-Independent Henry Howell lost by less than two percentage points to Democrat-turned-Republican Miles Godwin. Howell, who had declined the Democratic Party banner—in part because of George McGovern’s crushing defeat in the presidential election the year before—was running as the de facto Democrat.

This year’s impressive performance is due less to Sarvis’s charms than to the wild unpopularity of the two mainstream candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who’s currently the state’s attorney general. In a late September poll, nearly half of likely voters had an unfavorable opinion of Cuccinelli, and more than one-third said the same of McAuliffe. Both candidates provide ample fodder for negative advertising, and their campaigns have taken up the challenge with gusto. In this uninspiring political landscape, a third-party candidate was always going to have a better shot than usual—even Sarvis, a boyish 37-year-old with graduate degrees in economics, law, and math, but no political background beyond a 2011 state-senate race where he ran as a Republican against a Democratic incumbent and lost resoundingly.

Unfortunately for Sarvis, there’s very little evidence that most voters—even the ones who are ostensibly supporting him—know who he is. In a Quinnipiac poll released earlier this week, 80 percent of likely voters reported that they didn’t know enough about Sarvis to form an opinion. He’s at an absurd financial disadvantage; in a race where each of the major-party candidates has amassed more than $12 million, Sarvis had raised just $64,000 by the end of August. Given Sarvis’ almost total lack of exposure, there’s one simple explanation for why his numbers are so high on public-opinion surveys: His name isn’t McAuliffe or Cuccinelli.

“If Sarvis were running for the Peace and Freedom Party, he’d be getting the same amount of support in the polls,” says Ronald Rapoport, a professor of American politics at the College of William & Mary.

Sarvis embraces his status as the anti-candidate, freely admitting that he threw his hat into the ring last March because he realized voters would be itching for an alternative to the major-party contenders. But he also insists that many are looking for a candidate with his particular ideological bent. He’s running as a libertarian purist, advocating for a hands-off attitude on economic and social issues. “It’s refreshing to a lot of people that there’s someone who’s willing to stand up for the basic principle that you should be able to live how you want,” he says. “Voters used to be able to find that ‘live and let live’ mentality in the Republican Party, but now they’re realizing that the GOP stopped caring about that a long time ago.”

The idea that Virginia voters might be open to a libertarian candidate isn’t wholly implausible. Over the past four or five years, libertarianism has enjoyed a higher national profile thanks to the rise of the Tea Party and the election of politicians like Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky who’s also the son of Ron Paul, the perennial libertarian-leaning presidential candidate. In Western states, libertarianism isn’t a new phenomenon—former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson governed as a libertarian-leaning Republican and ran as the Libertarian Party candidate in the 2012 presidential election—but the ideology is less popular on the East Coast, especially in Southern states with large numbers of socially conservative voters. In 2012, Johnson had an unusually solid performance in Virginia and still won less than 1 percent of the vote. Which raises the question, could a strong Sarvis performance signal a growing libertarian presence in the state?

Inciting a third-party surge is a Sisyphean task, even in an election with such unpopular candidates. Sarvis has another incentive to break the 10 percent threshold on November 5: State law stipulates that if a third-party candidate wins 10 percent of the vote, his party gets automatic ballot access in 2014, 2015, and 2016. But polling numbers don’t translate into actual votes. “It’s common to see third-party candidates poll much better than they end up doing on Election Day,” says Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “A lot of people who had supported a third-party candidate in theory end up voting for the Democrat or the Republican because they want to support someone who could win. Most of the others just don’t vote.”

Sarvis’s message—and the way he delivers it—isn’t likely to convert many voters to libertarianism. A self-avowed introvert, he comes off as earnest but awkward, someone who’s used to being respected for his brains rather than his charisma. He’s most convincing when he draws connections between his politics and his personal life. Married to an African-American woman, Sarvis is fond of justifying his stance on gay marriage by pointing out that his own marriage would have been illegal in Virginia 50 years ago. That’s a message designed to draw supporters away from a Democrat, but at this point, Republican Cuccinelli is the weaker target. The Quinnipiac poll shows that of the two major candidates, McAuliffe is doing better among his party base; he also has an eight-point lead over Cuccinelli.

Overall, Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown says that given the small sample sizes, it’s hard to tell which candidate Sarvis is siphoning votes from. But other polls have shown Sarvis performing well in Republican strongholds. In a Washington Post poll from late September, Sarvis had 19 percent of likely voters in Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, the most conservative area of the state.

Sarvis’s support in areas like Southwest Virginia is actually yet more evidence that his followers aren’t familiar with his platform. One of the poorest parts of the state, Southwest Virginia relies heavily on subsidies to finance roads, health care, and schools. Sarvis’s support for gay marriage and dislike of geographic subsidies places him on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from most of the region’s voters.

John McGlennon, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, says that Sarvis’s strong performance in rural Virginia is more reflective of McAuliffe’s success hammering Cuccinelli for his cozy relationship with out-of-state energy companies. Over the summer, McAuliffe began running ads pounding Cuccinelli for allowing an assistant attorney general in his office to give legal advice to a Pennsylvania natural gas company embroiled in a lawsuit with southwest Virginia landowners who claimed they were being cheated out of royalties for energy extracted on their property. “If you’re a Republican in southwest Virginia and you’ve seen all these ads with your neighbors denouncing Cuccinelli, what are you going to do?” says McGlennon. “You’re not going to vote for the Democrat. So sure, you might say you’re supporting this guy you’ve never heard of.”

A debate appearance could have made a difference for Sarvis, who recently began using his limited funds to raise his profile by running TV ads. But it likely wouldn’t have given him enough momentum to reach the 10 percent threshold in November. McAuliffe, who has had a lead of between five and nine points in the past 11 polls, may not even need Sarvis’s help to defeat Cuccinelli. Sarvis’s best hope, at this point, is for a robust finish that leaves him positioned to run again—perhaps for a less ambitious office. “If he were to run for something in the future, he has a little more name recognition, so he’d be a stronger candidate,” says Rapoport. “But if he got 10 percent of the vote this time, I would be amazed.”

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