SHELBY COUNTY — The presidential candidate arrived in a minivan.
Though it was decorated with a “Live Free” slogan and the signatures of hundreds of supporters, the vehicle was a far cry from the motorcades, bullet-proof limos and police escorts the major-party presidential candidates use on the campaign trail.
But for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, it’s the perfect setting for an underdog candidate whose campaign has been waged far from the bright lights and 24-hour media coverage that defines a modern campaign.
The former governor of New Mexico spoke in Shelby County Wednesday evening, along with several other Libertarian candidates, including the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Rupert Boneham. While the crowd of about 100 may have been much smaller than the masses that would have shown up to see Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, they were just as passionate for their candidate.
There were no polished shoes, color-coordinated ties and certainly no TV cameras. The atmosphere was anything but stuffy. His message: Voters can make a difference.
“I would not be running for president of the United States if I didn’t think I could do a really good job as president of the United States,” said Johnson, one of several small-party candidates in the race. “If you don’t like what you see, who’s got control of the situation? Well, you and I have control of the situation.”
The event, held in rural Shelby County at the Moral Township Community Center, was laid back, complete with chili, cookies and live music. “You can’t spend what you don’t got,” crooned a blues singer, playing guitar as the crowd mingled.
While Libertarians acknowledge they’re underdogs with less cash and little media coverage, they are holding true to their cause of limited government spending, fewer federal mandates and more personal freedoms. A select few are so dedicated, they take the time and money to run for public office knowing it’s an uphill battle.
Nationally, Johnson will be lucky if he gets 2 percent of the vote on Election Day. The Libertarians’ candidate in 2008, former Rep. Bob Barr, received less than 1 percent of the popular vote.
“To be a Libertarian, you’ve got to be an optimist. You’ve always been the outsider running,” said Rex Bell, candidate for Indiana’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Hancock County.
Bell, of Wayne County, has run unsuccessfully in five elections in the past decade, including for seats on the county council, county board of commissioners and the state Legislature. This year is his first bid for federal office.
“I discovered the Libertarians in 2000,” said Bell. “I thought, ‘Wow, these guys think like I think. Maybe I’m crazy, but there are other guys that are crazy, too.’”
And that’s the attitude many of the Libertarians took at the event Wednesday. They may earn a smaller percentage of the vote, but at least they get to share their message out there.
And besides, Chris Spangle points out, statistics show an increase in votes for Libertarian Party candidates, especially in Indiana.
Spangle, executive director of the state’s Libertarian Party, says a few years ago, Libertarian candidates received less than 5 percent of the vote. But in 2010 some races earned 5 percent; and this year, polls indicate between 7 percent and 12 percent of voters will choose Libertarian candidates in local or state races.
“We’re growing in every election cycle,” Spangle said.
Part of the reason for the growth is the increase in interest from young people. Two-thirds of the crowd Wednesday was under the age of 35, and Spangle says that’s common across the state.
Spangle, 29, said his generation is struggling to find work and pay off student loans. Limited government spending and changes to tax policy to improve the business climate is something 20-somethings cling to.
Some may also have been influenced by shock jock Howard Stern, Spangle said, or the Libertarian influences in the show “South Park.”
A common question Libertarians are asked, he said, is, “Why should I waste my vote on a third-party candidate?”
“The only wasted vote is casting a ballot for somebody you don’t believe in,” was Spangle’s response.
That message was repeated multiple times Wednesday.
“You need to ‘waste your vote’ and vote for Gary Johnson,” the presidential candidate said. “And if everybody else does that, I’m going to be the next president of the United States.”
Johnson spoke on limited government, which means eliminating the Internal Revenue Service, income taxes and corporate taxes.
He also spoke in favor of legalizing marijuana use, and said that if police stopped investigating “victimless, nonviolent crime,” more funds would be freed to stop other crimes.
Johnson said in addition to fewer campaign contributions and limited media attention, a third-party candidate also struggles to get his name on the ballot. Johnson’s name is on the ballot in 48 states, but not in Oklahoma. He is a write-in candidate in Michigan.
Other third-party candidates who are on the ballots in enough states to win the presidency are Jill Stein, Green Party; Virgil Goode, Constitution Party; and Rocky Anderson, Justice Party. The four participated in a debate Tuesday in Chicago.
None of the small-party candidates was invited to participate in the three presidential debates between Obama and Romney.
Jason Maddox and Amy Krauskopf of Castleton were smitten with Johnson. The couple have been following his campaign, and they were all smiles as they stood in line to meet him after his speech.
“To me, it’s a fallacy to say you have to vote for the lesser of the two evils,” said Maddox. “To me, that’s a fallacy of the system.”
Krauskopf said she doesn’t know why she voted for Obama in 2008. “It was a popularity thing at the time,” she said.
“I think people just need to open their eyes and quit voting for the mainstream,” she said.
Paul Gable, founder of the Libertarian Party in Shelby County, said he was pleased with the crowd, especially because the party there just formed in July.
“I’m more pleased with the fact that, I look around here and there’s a lot of high school kids,” Gable said. That means growth for the future of the party.
Boneham gave out tie-dye T-shirts and signed autographs at the event. The former “Survivor” reality TV star vowed that a vote for him or any Libertarian candidate is “a vote for change.”
Both Boneham and Brad Klopfenstein, his running mate for lieutenant governor, said they believe they’ll win. Klopfenstein is a former Hancock County resident; he graduated from Mt. Vernon High School in 1987.
Hancock County has a small Libertarian presence. Phil Miller, longtime chair of the county party, served on the Greenfield City Council from 2000 to 2003 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year.
Paul Bravard, a New Palestine resident and candidate for state representative in District 57, joked that maybe the only votes he’ll earn will be from him and his wife.
“I know I have two votes, and everything over that is a bonus to me,” Bravard said.
Bravard said he’s tired of the Republicans’ and Democrats’ standard positions, and he wants to advocate for limited government. While it would be nice to win the election, Bravard said getting the message out to the public is equally important.
“I just want people to know there are alternatives out there, and you don’t have to go with the flow,” Bravard said. “You can be different. It’s OK to be weird.”