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Libertarians Find Their Audience In 2012 Race

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Somewhere on the path to the White House this year, a powerful set of ideas began to creep into the mainstream debate over which direction the country will take.

These are ideas that not too long ago were written off as marginal, or even worse, a little kooky. They come from Libertarians: free and open markets and extremely limited government. Those ideals are now becoming more mainstream and are influencing the Republican Party.

This weekend, Libertarians were in Las Vegas to nominate their candidate for president, Gary Johnson. NPR's David Welna was there to cover both the Libertarian convention and the state Republican convention, and he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he found a lot of overlap.

"At the state [Republican] convention, Ron Paul supporters vastly outnumbered Mitt Romney supporters," Welna says. "Their point, they say, is that they want to influence the Republican Party with the thinking of Ron Paul [and] with his Libertarian ideas."

Those ideas include pulling out of Afghanistan and going back to the gold standard.

At the Libertarian convention, Welna says it was an occasion for Libertarians to think about how they can get their message out.

"What they're really betting on is that Gary Johnson's standing in national polls will rise if Ron Paul drops out of this race," he says. "They're hoping many of Ron Paul's supporters will jump over and support Johnson."

A National Libertarian Message

Now a lot of those Ron Paul supporters that Gary Johnson is hoping to attract are young. A recent poll put out by Harvard's Institute of Politics suggests Libertarian ideas are gaining traction with those age 18 to 29.

Ron Paul has been running for president on a message of limited government in all spheres, but Paul has been running on the Republican ticket, however, and Mitt Romney is the likely nominee.

That message is one Gary Johnson hopes to continue spreading on the national stage as the Libertarian nominee. He says part of his platform is ending wars the U.S. in involved in, marriage equality and drug reform.

Johnson tells NPR's Raz that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have the right ideas for America.

"If either one of them get elected, four years from now government is going to be more intrusive and cost more" Johnson says.

Based what he sees as a negative record for the president in Afghanistan, the drug war in the U.S. and the economy, Johnson thinks he'll pull more votes from Obama than he will from Romney.

"I think a lot of Democrats really do recognize the notion of being fiscally prudent ... [and] this is not sustainable," he says. "If we don't fix this, there are going to be unintended consequences."

If Johnson gets 15 percent support in national polls, he would qualify for participating in the presidential debates in the fall and would be able to give the Libertarian message a lot of exposure.

Alexander McCobin, a grad student at Georgetown University and member of Students For Liberty, a national Libertarian organization, thinks Johnson might just get that support.

"This is the most libertarian generation that has ever existed," McCobin says. "I just think it's taking a little bit longer for people to realize ... but in 10 or 20 years, once our age group starts to have more of an influence in society, we're going to see very significant shifts in what's happening."

Libertarian Ideas Going Mainstream

Dave Weigel, a journalist for Slate Magazine, says that due in large part to the economy it's not just young people who are increasingly embracing libertarian principals — it's mainstream members of the Republican Party.

"The Tea Party movement came up at first out of conservative media, but it also came out of the activists," Weigel says, "and the activists early on were Libertarians."

At early Tea Party rallies, Weigel recalls seeing many Ron Paul supporters. Paul had long criticized the Federal Reserve, ideas once seen as "crankery," Weigel says, but with the economic crisis those ideas suddenly took off.

"When someone has a catch-all, silver-bullet reason why the system failed us, people listen to that person," he says. "In this case, Ron Paul had been talking about central banking and the lack of sound money for decades."

A lot of positions now seen as conservative have Libertarian origins. The Republican Party's fight against the individual mandate portion of Obama's health law has been a staple of the Libertarian message: that government can't force you to do anything, Weigel says.

Any outrage against the system only lasts as long as the crisis lasts, Weigel says, and unfortunately the economic crisis in the U.S. has lasted a while. Whether or not the rise of Libertarian ideas is just an anomaly will remain to be seen.

"As long as there's high unemployment and a high sense of fear about the entitlement state and the things we've gotten comfortable with, you're going to have anti-government sentiment," he says, "and a lot of it is going to be Libertarian."

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