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Michigan congressman Justin Amash on Tuesday announced he was forming an exploratory committee for a potential presidential run as a candidate for the Libertarian Party.
Amash first joined Congress as part of a wave of tea party Republicans elected on a platform of fiscal conservatism in the 2010 midterm elections. During his tenure, he was a frequent critic of the two-party system and occasionally broke with the GOP on key issues. He was the only non-Democrat in the House to vote in favor of impeaching Donald Trump for his conduct with Ukraine. Amash formally left the Republican Party in July of last year and served as an independent until joining the Libertarian Party this week.
Amash’s odds of winning the presidential election in November appear to be incredibly small. The Libertarian Party’s candidate in 2016, Gary Johnson, received just 3.3 percent of the vote. But third-party candidates can still play a major role in deciding who becomes president. Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein each earned enough votes to cover Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in several key swing states in the last election.
Why there’s debate
In light of what happened in 2016, the initial response to Amash’s announcement was that it was bad news for Joe Biden. Trump mockingly welcomed him to the race. “They dropped balloons from the sky in the West Wing when Justin Amash announced that he was running for president,” former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said. The fear among Democrats is that Amash will provide conservative independent voters who are loath to support Trump a choice other than Joe Biden.
Amash could be especially disruptive in his home state of Michigan — a state Trump won by just 10,000 votes in 2016. A poll from last year showed Biden’s advantage in Michigan cut in half by Amash’s presence in the race.
Others have challenged the assumption that Amash would primarily siphon votes from Biden. His record of fierce opposition to government spending and social programs might prove unappealing to moderate voters. At the same time, those small-government principles could be inviting to conservatives who might otherwise cast a reluctant vote for Trump.
A number of political experts doubt that Amash, or any other third-party candidate, will play a decisive role in either direction.
Before he can challenge Trump and Biden in the general election, Amash will first have to win the Libertarian Party’s nomination. The party’s convention is scheduled for late May, but the coronavirus pandemic has cast uncertainty on whether it will have to be rescheduled. The virus has also complicated Libertarians’ efforts to get their candidate on the November ballot in a number of states, including the crucial swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Trump’s presidency may have led to a boost in popularity for the libertarian worldview
“Four years of Trump and system failures in Washington may not usher in the first libertarian president, but perhaps they’ve created the conditions for a candidate like Amash to expand the reach of libertarian politics and mobilize the ranks of disaffected voters.” — Andy Kroll, Rolling Stone
Amash will give reluctant conservatives someone other than Biden to vote for
“This is a consistent finding across polls that include third party candidates. In the end, they tend to give those people who weren’t going to vote for Trump anyway an excuse to vote for someone else [other than the Democrat], while not pulling many voters from the Trump column.” — Sarah Longwell and Tim Miller, Bulwark
He could pull just as many votes from Trump as Biden
“Amash will run to Trump’s right on a variety of issues, particularly taxes and spending. He’ll also resurface the long-dormant arguments from Republicans who didn’t trust him to implement conservative policy. I don’t know why people assume he’ll draw more votes from Biden.” — New York Magazine columnist Josh Barro
Voters who’ve shifted to Biden won’t want to risk helping Trump win
“It’s hard to imagine Amash peeling off too many Trump votes. … Insofar as Never-Trumpers still exist, many seem to have coalesced around Joe Biden — not because they love Biden’s politics, but because they want to beat Trump. They’re unlikely to switch over to a doomed statement campaign.” — David A. Graham, Atlantic
Amash’s politics won’t appeal to many moderate Democrats
“Amash may find more traction with disaffected Democrats, but his track record of extreme conservatism may hamper him there, too. He strongly opposes government spending and assistance, and he has taken many unpopular positions that have drawn public ire.” — Matt Fuller, HuffPost
A progressive third-party candidate would be much more disruptive to Biden’s chances
“It’s not that there isn’t some room for a third party bid. It’s just that such a candidacy would likely come from the left, not the right like Amash — someone more akin to the progressive Bernie Sanders.” — Harry Enten, CNN
Amash needs only an above-average showing in his home state to swing the election
“The case for him being a significant presence in the 2020 race is readily apparent. He’s not just a sitting congressman and former Republican, but he also hails from one of the most important states in the 2020 election: Michigan. The state went for Trump by just 0.2 percentage points in 2016 — the thinnest margin of any state. That means even a modestly strong showing by a Libertarian nominee could theoretically swing the state and potentially the race for presidency.” — Aaron Blake, Washington Post
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