Libertarian Party of Michigan 1996 Election Analysis

From Emily Salvette:

On November 24, 1996, the Executive Committee of the Libertarian Party of Michigan met to discuss the results of the November 5 general election and discuss strategies for the future. In addition to the nine elected members of the Libertarian Executive Committee (Emily Salvette, Mark Owen, David Nagy, Dan Marsh, Jon Coon, Keith Edwards, James Hudler, Jim McAbee, Stacy Van Oast), participants included: Mark Heil (state membership chair), Ben Bachrach (state presidential campaign [16-5] chair), Paul Soyk (state campaign finance chair) Diane Szabla (state finance chair), Brett Cashman (state affiliate newsletter editor), Barb Goushaw (Jon Coon campaign manager), Bill Hall (National Committee Representative at-large), Ken Bisson (National Committee Region 3 Representative), Richard Clark, Doug MacDonald, Tim O'Brien, Nancy O'Brien, Kevin Bloom, Anna McAbee, Phil Walsh, and Joe Zemens. The results of this session are summarized below.

This Election

In general, there was a great deal of satisfaction with the results of this election. The number of candidates and their performance at the polls was impressive, especially in such a good economic climate -- a time when people don't usually vote for change. Keeping ballot status was the LPM's primary goal and Harry Browne's total vote gave us what we needed. In four races a Libertarian candidate was the balance of power: Jerry Kaufman (Michigan Supreme Court), Diane Barnes (State Board of Education), Bill Hall (U-M Board of Regents), and Russ Kohler (Macomb County Commissioner-Dist. 11). In fact, Diane Barnes's impressive total (150,869) was almost enough to give us major party status had she been our top of ticket. Diane "has not said no" to running again for the spot in 1998.

Nationally, Michigan had the third-highest vote for Browne behind California and Pennsylvania. Bill Hall reported that at last weekend's (Nov 16-17) National Committee meeting, the mood was positive noting a doubling of LP membership and a renewed commitment to build party membership.

The Libertarian Party was the only minor party in Michigan to retain ballot status for 1998. The Reform Party is now a major party in Michigan. Their experience re-formulating their state organization to comply with the legal demands of major party status can provide a case-study for us. We'll be there soon, too, so we should watch how it's handled. We will also continue out-reach to Reform Party groups in anticipation of any eventuality (Reform Party breaking apart, change in election law to allow multi-party nominations, member defections, etc.)

What went right:

The LPM retained ballot status and generated approximately 2000 inquiries about the LP. Two people were elected to township office as Libertarians: Brett Cashman, Superior Township Parks Commissioner; and Brian Wisneski, Clinton Township Trustee. Additionally, John Willis, who missed the LPM caucus deadline and ran as a Republican, was elected Boon Township Treasurer. (John promoted his Libertarian affiliation by sending every registered voter in his district a letter explaining the Libertarian Party and including a Harry Browne pamphlet. He won 170 votes to one.) While all three of these candidates were running unopposed for their seats, Brian held off an aggressive write-in challenger. These three candidates had one thing in common: they were active in their communities. They had participated in local affairs and community service activities, were known to the "movers and shakers," and had support from within their district. Voters in their district were not voting for a "Libertarian," they were voting for a neighbor they knew--an important lesson for those Libertarians who want to win their races. An election is not a thoughtful leadership selection process, it's a vote for Homecoming King.

Candidates who are running to win must have a substantial base of support and volunteers in their district.

The radio ad campaign produced by Tim O'Brien (where Jon Coon talked about voting for Harry Browne to make the LP a major party in Michigan) was very successful. We raised enough money ($10,000) to buy adequate frequency around the state. Several inquiry callers commented on the ads; the message gave them a tangible reason to vote Libertarian (i.e. the reality of Michigan election law) to counter the "wasted vote" argument.

The flow of information was generally good in this campaign. Candidates were contacted regularly by the state campaign chair, the media and public were able to contact candidates through lists and slate cards, the local distribution centers for campaign materials were well publicized and utilized, campaign inquiries were distributed to local affiliates in a timely fashion, and the National Headquarters distributed names to us fairly well (although many "interesteds" told me national's electronic answering system was a real turn-off).

Most gratifying was that the party really challenged itself during this campaign. We pushed ourselves to the max this time to see how far we could go. The coordinated efforts of so many volunteers through the Jon Coon campaign, the Michigan 16-5 committee, the many active campaigns around the state, and the local affiliates was astounding. For the most part, everyone who wanted to get involved was able to participate through these groups. We also tried many new things such as distribution centers, voter commitment cards, and Jon's extraordinary campaign video drop. Some things worked, some didn't. But by pushing the envelope we learned from these successes and failures for the future. It was noted that we came out of the campaign season still friends. Was that a surprise???

What went wrong:

Libertarian candidates were excluded or, in the case of Harry Browne, not prominently featured in some voter guides. To counteract this, we might lobby earlier and harder for inclusion. Emily will compile a list of sponsoring organizations to contact (send names, addresses, phone & fax #s to Emily). It was suggested that the party might develop survey "starter kits," an FAQ type resource that candidates can refer to when filling out surveys. It was noted that a candidate may not want to complete all surveys he or she receives. Some surveys come from such a biased perspective that a Libertarian candidate can't make an effective response. Obviously a candidate should look at all surveys, but only answer those with merit. Perhaps we should develop a form letter to fire off to these sponsoring groups that skew voter education efforts by asking such biased questions.

While great strides were made in the recruiting and training of candidates this season, there's room for improvement. Almost all our candidates were conscientious, articulate spokespeople for libertarian ideas, and some made heroic commitments to their campaigns. But several issues require consideration. 1) The proverbial quality vs. quantity issue--fill the ballot with any willing (or arm-twisted) candidate or exercise more control over the nominating process. We want to protect ourselves from non-Libertarian "party shoppers" but don't want to discourage new people from running in races that interest them. 2) Can we beef up the recruiting process so a larger number of potential candidates are identified earlier. What do the affiliates need to become active participants in this recruiting effort. We need to smooth out the caucus procedure at nominating conventions so we are not scrambling for candidates at the last minute. 3) There should be a realistic identification of the purpose of each campaign (educational campaign vs. a winnable race). We should do a better job communicating the difference between the two and how each fits in our overall election strategy. 4) The state party needs to develop an overall election strategy. 5) The more candidate training sessions we can have, the better.

What To Do Now

Election strategy

The consensus of the group was to adopt the following election strategy through 1998:

Use upper-level campaigns (State Rep and up) for educational and strategic purposes, and local campaigns to win. To guarantee retention of ballot status and give us the best chance at achieving major party status, the 1998 top-of-ticket race will be State Board of Education.

Upper-level educational campaigns can be used to widely promote the libertarian message. They can generate excitement throughout the state with their higher visibility especially congressional races which generate the most earned media. The national party will likely encourage us to run a full slate of congressional candidates in 1998. They may even provide coordinated support for congressional level races nationwide. State Rep and state Senate races can provide an avenue for messages about state issues, plus can be strategically used to tip the ever-changing balance of power in the Michigan legislature.

Term-limits will kick in to create more open seats, and we can make a concerted effort to identify single party or swing districts. We'll have many target races where Libertarian candidates can have an impact.

Local races (county and below) over the next two years will be used to generate Libertarian wins. Whether partisan or nonpartisan, these wins expand the credibility of the Libertarian party and can be added to the office holder's political resume for future runs at higher office.

Candidate recruiting and training:

As soon as possible, the state campaign chair will develop and distribute a list of offices to be elected at the 1998 general election. Several new ideas to lengthen and strengthen these important tasks were adopted. First, instead of waiting until the election-year convention to start thinking about campaigns, we will add a "pre-nominating" session at the 1997 convention (May 2-4 in Traverse City). This session will be in addition to the candidate training seminar usually held at conventions. It will be a chance for candidates to formally announce their campaigns, and talk about their qualifications and plans. (note: candidates will be formally nominated at the 1998 convention.)

Doug MacDonald has announced his intention of forming a committee to help Libertarian candidates campaign for upper-level offices . His effort was enthusiastically endorsed by the LEC. This new committee will focus on recruiting, training, and providing campaign tools and support for the upper-level educational campaigns (state Rep, state Sen, US Congress). Contact Doug at 810-231-3137 or for information.

While Doug will be working hard recruiting and organizing upper-level campaigns, the LEC was also delighted to hear that Barb Goushaw is starting the Libertarian Campaign Managers Association of Michigan. Her group, that currently includes Doug MacDonald and Richard Clark, will help train campaign managers to run winning Libertarian campaigns. Her expertise will be invaluable -- we're very lucky to have her here in Michigan!

Winning local races as a Libertarian will not be easy, so we must start working now. We must identify potential winning seats, recruit good candidates (either convince the local "homecoming king" to run as a Libertarian or encourage Libertarians who want to win to start schmoozing), and get people trained. LPM affiliates can increase voters' familiarity and comfort level with the party through local activism. Affiliate members can attend local government meetings to learn about and speak on relevant issues, get to know their local government officials for more effective lobbying, form coalitions to change local laws, cultivate local media, participate in public events and community service projects, and sell their friends and neighbors on the Libertarian Party. Ultimately, we must gain votes by selling our ideas and ourselves one neighbor at a time. This can only happen at the local level.

Building local affiliates:

The local affiliates must play a critical role if this election strategy is to succeed. Affiliates will identify winnable races in their area, recruit good candidates, train them, provide a core of campaign volunteers, and generally raise the profile of the LP through activities in their communities. The state party must make it a top priority to build, train, and support local affiliate groups.

The state party will help train local activists by hosting two Leadership Conferences each year (the first one is already scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 8, 1997 in Owosso). These conferences will feature workshops for officer and committee positions, and a general interest how-to session for all activists.

The state party can support affiliate leadership by sponsoring regular (quarterly?) meetings of all local chairs. Bringing the local chairs together will build camaraderie and provide a forum for sharing ideas, discussing and solving problems, and planning coordinated events. It is also a way to increase communication between the state party and local groups. For example, some affiliates have expressed concern about the new national unified membership plan. They fear this plan which does not include local level dues will hurt their finances. While the impact of the plan is not yet known, it's clear that more discussion was and is needed to address this concern. Such meetings may avoid this type of situation in the future.

The state party must also continue support services to the affiliates such as providing database lists on request, forwarding new inquiry and member names, returning county dues to local treasurers in a timely fashion, funding start-up operations for new groups, and including a local affiliates section in our state newsletter. Of course, the most important way the state party can help affiliates is to build LP membership.

Building membership:

The 11/23/96 membership report showed 1039 members in Michigan. The total number of votes cast for Libertarian candidates November 5 was 1,425,376. It would be wonderful if we could identify everyone who voted Libertarian and ask them to join, but that's not feasible. However, we can pursue the approximately 2000 people who contacted us for information during the campaign. The membership chair has and will send direct-mail solicitations to these people, perhaps developing a follow-up phone call program.

Mark Heil also proposed a series of Libertarian "open houses" in communities around the state. These open houses would allow people to get more information about the party in a casual, non-meeting atmosphere. The program would be coordinated with local affiliates with the goal of broadening the member base for local groups. Perhaps they could place a "Thank you for voting Libertarian" ad in the local paper as the Max Dollarhite campaign did and include an invitation to the open house. After discussing the cost of the program and chances of success, it seemed reasonable to try the open house idea on a small scale and see how it works.

Issues for 1998

There may be interest in developing a candidate screening procedure for 1998 nominations. In a discussion about what a screening process might look like, several suggestions were made. We could do what we have done in the past: have a committee interview and rate potential candidates, distributing results to the nominating convention delegates. Or, we could ask potential candidates to sign a statement asserting they have read the LP & LPM platforms and support it; or, if they disagree with certain planks, list which ones. Perhaps we could ask potential candidates to complete a survey (unbiased, of course) and prepare our own "voter's guide" for delegates. This issue requires more discussion and input before any action is taken. It's difficult to predict how improving our recruiting and training efforts may change the need for a screening procedure; or on the other hand, how adopting a screening procedure may impact recruiting.

It has been suggested by several members that the LPM should sponsor an initiative/referendum drive. The LEC has considered this issue before, deciding not to take on such a task. While we all realize ballot questions are excellent methods for advancing the cause of liberty, they do not directly advance the objective of our organization which is to elect Libertarians to public office. Ballot drives are also expensive, labor-intensive endeavors, beyond the reach of our resources at this time.


The 1996 elections were successful for the Libertarian Party of Michigan. Our top-of-ticket candidate kept LP ballot status for 1998, we elected two (really 3) candidates to township office, and achieved new levels of organizational activity and volunteer participation.

Work will begin immediately for the 1998 campaigns. Our strategy will be to use upper-level campaigns (State Rep and up) for educational and strategic purposes, and local campaigns to win. The 1998 top-of-ticket race will be State Board of Education.

We will improve candidate recruiting and training by creating a committee to serve upper-level campaigns, and by supporting local affiliates who will serve local candidates. Barb Goushaw's Libertarian Campaign Manager Association will be a resource for campaigns at all levels.

Affiliate groups will be the key to success in 1998. Our top priority must be to build train and support local Libertarian organizations. The state party will sponsor new educational and support activities for local groups while working to increase membership and the pool of local volunteers.

Thanks to everyone who made the 1996 campaign season so successful and to those who participated in this strategy session.

Source: December 1, 1996, report prepared by Emily Salvette, State Chair of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.