Report on the 1996 Presidential Election Campaign

This report contains my views of what happened in the 1996 Presidential race, and my suggestions for greater electoral success in the future.

As in any study of human action, there is no way to absolutely prove or disprove the merits of any electoral strategy - since there is no way to isolate any element in a laboratory situation. So it should be understood that these are my opinions, based on my experience and on my knowledge of marketing. If this is understood, I don't need to litter this report with "I believe" and "I think."


The Libertarian Party faces what I call a "Hurdle of Irrelevancy." It might also be called the "futility factor." Most libertarians, libertarian-leaning people, and voters in general consider any support for the LP to be an exercise in futility - thus making the LP irrelevant to any considerations for the future of America. . . . We won't attract sizable numbers of voters, registrations, money, or media so long as we are considered irrelevant. And we will be considered irrelevant so long as we can't attract voters, registrations, money, or media. Thus we seem to be snared in a classic Catch-22 situation. And until the LP overcomes the Hurdle of Irrelevancy, all other concerns will be moot.

In my view, the Hurdle of Irrelevancy dwarfs all other considerations about the just- concluded campaigns for the Presidency and other offices - as well as plans for future electoral success.

Fortunately, joining the Libertarian Party doesn't seem irrelevant. LP membership has attractions that are independent of potential electoral success - such as the benefit of associating with like-minded people. Just getting LP News can be worthwhile, since it brings libertarian news that might not be obtainable anywhere else. So the LP can exist without electoral success, and a growing LP may provide the means to finally overcome the Hurdle of Irrelevancy.

I will return to this possibility at the end of this report.


This section will review the objectives, strategy, and message of the 1996 campaign.

Objectives of the 1996 Campaign

It is not my intention to contribute to a cause that might culminate in a better world 20, 50, or 100 years from now. I am 63 years old and I am concerned about the years remaining in my life - not what will happen in future generations.

I decided to run for President because I believed there was a chance to win the presidency and reverse America's course toward ever-larger government.

There is no question that the great majority of the American people think government is too big. There also is no question that the great majority of the American people would like to vote for someone who would make the government smaller, less expensive, and less intrusive. But that "someone" has to have a chance of winning - or to at least be powerful enough to generate a movement toward smaller government in the near future. Otherwise, the average voter probably will retreat to choosing among the alternatives that have at least some chance of winning.1

Contrary to some of the things said about me during the past two years, I never was optimistic about my chances of winning in 1996; it always was a very long shot. But I could visualize in my mind how it was possible - if we could recruit enough people and raise enough money to generate the power to tip over the Hurdle of Irrelevancy. We didn't acquire those resources, however.

When it became obvious that we wouldn't raise the resources to win, my objective shifted to achieving a vote total that would dismantle the Hurdle of Irrelevancy - paving the way for a Libertarian victory in the 2000 or 2004 election. This prompted the following strategic changes:

  1. Targeting likely voters: Instead of reassuring the general population of voters that our policies would be good for them - and dealing with every conceivable reservation about the benefits of freedom - we focused on those who already understood those benefits. This required changing the message only slightly - as it was still necessary to show the hard-core libertarian prospect that I was capable of dealing with the objections of others. But it became more important to show the libertarian why he should vote for me than to worry about the reaction of other voters to my message.


  2. Reduced expectations: It was necessary to acknowledge that I couldn't win, in order to reassure the potential Libertarian voter that I was realistic, and that there was another objective - laying the groundwork for winning in 2000 or 2004 - that was more important than who wins the 1996 election.


  3. Repetition: Most voters won't make an irrevocable decision to vote for someone upon one hearing. And since our resources were so very limited, we chose to use them to provide repetition to the already-converted or almost-converted, rather than prospecting for new voters. Thus in the final two months of the campaign, we focused on booking repeat performances on friendly talk shows, rather than looking for new audiences - and our radio advertising was run on shows where I had appeared multiple times and received a good reception.2

Strategy for the 1996 Campaign

At the beginning, we hoped to overcome the Hurdle of Irrelevancy within this campaign cycle (as opposed to hoping that the campaign's results would succeed in overcoming it). To achieve this, we needed to induce the national media to pay continual attention to us - not just produce an occasional story about "third parties," but cover our campaign continually. This required some kind of "breakthrough" event.

We could have done this almost immediately if we had possessed, say, $10 million to spend going into 1996. With that kind of money, we could have begun running TV advertising that would attract the attention of the media and also produce some standing in the public-opinion polls. But we didn't have that kind of money. So we looked for other ways to make a breakthrough. We tried five such possibilities during the course of the campaign. . . .

  1. The CityVote debates in October 1995: It was hoped that the prospect of these debates would generate enough media attention to induce the Republican primary challengers to participate - thus assuring nationwide TV coverage. As it turned out, the Republicans (other than Charles Collins and one other minor candidate) refused to attend, and only one debate took place (in October 1995) - which included Jesse Jackson, Collins, Lyndon LaRouche, two others (relatively unknown people, whose names escape me), and myself. The event produced no noticeable publicity.


  2. The CityVote election in November 1995: We campaigned in three of the cities that had the CityVote candidates on their ballots - Fayette (Missouri), Tucson, and Boulder. Our hope was that we might get a large enough vote in one of these cities to attract the attention of the national media. However, this was virtually impossible without the resources to run advertising and implement the other tactics necessary to a winning campaign. One happy result was my experience in Fayette; I spent two days there - speaking, doing talk shows, and meeting people in the village square. While reaching no more than 20% of the Fayette voters with our message, we received 5% of the vote. This suggested that our message was attractive, and that people responded favorably when they heard it.


  3. The New Hampshire Primary: During 1995, we assumed (as had previous LP Presidential campaigns) that we could achieve a significant media breakthrough if we could make a splash in New Hampshire during its primary season. The idea was that all the national media would have people on the scene in New Hampshire, providing an opportunity for us to make contact with them and get them permanently interested in our campaign. By the end of 1995, we realized that there was very little chance of succeeding in this. The noise level was much too high; the Republicans were spending tens of millions of dollars that we didn't have. The chances of achieving any lasting media attention were too slight, and the cost (in terms of time and money spent) would be much too high. So this strategy was superseded by one that focused on getting coverage everywhere in the country through talk radio.


  4. The book: We attempted to get Why Government Doesn't Work onto the national best-seller list. We promoted the idea of Libertarians buying copies for friends at bookstores, in the hope of getting the book to become featured in the stores, talked about in major reviews, and onto the best- seller list. This didn't succeed, although the book proved to be a valuable recruitment tool for individual Libertarians who gave or lent it to people they were trying to convert. I hope the book will continue to serve that purpose.


  5. 1996 national Presidential debates: We made getting into the debates a cornerstone of our strategy and message between July and September, 1996, even though the odds were against our succeeding. We assumed that this attempt would bring useful publicity, even if we failed to get into the debates. We were right. Our first breakthroughs into the national broadcast media occurred the day the Presidential Debate Commission announced its decision to exclude us. The next day I was on CNN's Talk Back Live!, and the controversy over the Debate Commission's decision to exclude third- party candidates led to appearances on the Larry King show, the C-SPAN third-party debates, and a good deal of other media coverage that wouldn't have been available otherwise. Our success in generating attention on this issue flowed partly from the fact that we had managed by that time to get around 200 radio and TV hosts and reporters to endorse the idea of my being in the debates. (Eventually, the number was close to 400.)3
All these ploys were, in effect, attempts to hit home runs. But by swinging for the fence, we didn't ignore the necessity to combine singles into rallies that produced runs. In other words, the campaign's success never depended on any of these projects. In fact, we decided against the New Hampshire strategy precisely because it was an all-or-nothing strategy. Had we continued with it and failed to get the attention we had hoped for (and we undoubtedly would have failed), we would have wasted precious time and resources with nothing else to show for several months' work.

All the above tactics were long-shots that were undertaken while continuing to build what we hoped would be a step-by-step campaign that would produce valuable results.

The step-by-step campaign had five major elements:

  1. Talk radio: We concentrated on this medium because it was relatively low- cost (paying for someone who was good at booking shows and for the telephone), because it was easily accessible to us, because we could reach several million people, and because I could talk to those people at length (rather than through brief sound bites selected by reporters or TV news directors). I was on well over 500 radio shows during the campaign.4


  2. Press releases: We sent press releases by fax to somewhere around 1,000 people in radio, TV, and the printed press. Toward the end of the campaign, releases went out almost daily. Bill Winter writes compelling press releases, and they seem to have been well received. Some of the releases were read on the air, others were referred to in print. In addition, they generated requests for interviews and reminded people in the media that we were running a serious campaign. The releases also went out to our email list, where they let the troops know that we were busy. I doubt that any of the smaller parties transmitted more than a tiny fraction of the releases we did.


  3. E-mail list: We made announcements, press releases, and other news available to anyone who wanted to subscribe to our e-mail list. At the end, we had 5,400 recipients. This, along with our World Wide Web site, allowed Libertarians to know what we were doing. Many of the e-mail recipients apparently forwarded our communications to their own lists, or posted them to CompuServe and America Online forums, or posted them in political e-mail bulletin boards. Because of the Internet facilities available now, I believe this was the most "communicating" LP Presidential campaign ever. The troops could see the activity, and thus were much more likely to work enthusiastically and much less likely to criticize the campaign.


  4. National TV & press: We did what we could to cultivate the national press - including hiring a public relations firm to try to book me on shows like Charley Rose, Tom Snyder, and Larry King. But, other than for the attention we received from the print press at convention time, we achieved very little with the national media until the Debate Commission's turndown triggered some interest in third parties. While talk radio and the local press are interested in issues and ideas, the national media are obsessed with celebrities - people who walk into a campaign with name recognition. Thus when they propose to discuss third parties, they quickly ignore the parties and focus on known people - Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan. We can overcome this only when we're so big that we can afford to blitz the networks with advertising.


  5. Local TV & press: Wherever I traveled, we tried to book as many TV appearances and press interviews as possible. On the whole, we received coverage from daily newspapers that was about 90% accurate, and I was treated with respect in print. The TV appearances were similar to radio shows, only usually much briefer. But without any visible national media coverage, local media had no reason to take a permanent interest in us.


  6. Personal appearances: We scheduled fewer personal appearances than was the case in earlier campaigns. It was decided early in 1996 that such appearances were usually less-valuable uses of my time than radio interviews, fund-raising, and some other activities. We tried to limit personal appearances to just those occasions that guaranteed valuable media coverage or opportunities for fund-raising. The most valuable media coverage occurred when a speech was broadcast or telecast in full - as happened on several occasions. Less valuable was attendance by one reporter from a newspaper, who may or may not even write about the event.
Continued in Section Two

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1Americans sometimes seem to choose to keep the government they have. But this is because the choices are framed so that the individual is asked to give up perceived "benefits" of government without any offsetting gain. That's why the Great Offer was important. It is discussed further in the section on the message. (back)

2TV advertising was different, because there was no way to narrow it to hard-core prospects. The TV advertising is necessary, I believe, because it attempts to reassure those who already know who we are that we aren't irrelevant. So we advertised where we could get the best cost- effective audience of political junkies. (back)

3At the end of the campaign, we knew of 307 radio & TV talk-show hosts, reporters, or other on-air personalities who had endorsed the idea of our being in the national debates - of which 70 had provided outright endorsements of my candidacy. We also knew of 77 print publications, columnists, or reporters who had endorsed our being in the debates - of which 22 had endorsed my candidacy. We assume other endorsements were made that weren't brought to our attention. (back)

4We are in the process of trying to tabulate the total number of shows I was on. But, in addition to the 307 radio & TV debate endorsers, we knew of at least 125 show hosts who had interviewed me, and who had not been asked for a debate endorsement or who had declined to give it. Given that there were many repeat appearances and that these lists don't include shows before 1996, and deducting the number of TV endorsers, there had to be over 500 radio appearances during the campaign. (back)  

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