Robert Sarvis: the Future of American Politics?

October 3, 2013 Topic: Domestic PoliticsElectionsPolitics Region: United States

Robert Sarvis: the Future of American Politics?

He won't win, but Virginia's Libertarian candidate for governor could signal a third-party ascendancy.


Traditionally, Virginia has never been fertile ground for third party candidates. Besides Independent Henry Howell's near miss in 1973 or William Story's fair showing in 1965—exceptions that seem to prove the rule—a non-major party candidate has yet to break 3 percent since the beginning of the twentieth century. This seems doubly true for libertarians, despite Virginia's conservative reputation. The only Libertarian Party candidate to register even a blip on the radar was Bill Redpath's whopping 0.77 percent in 2001. The late, great political scientist Daniel Elazar might have chalked it up to what he saw as Virginia's dominant "traditional," hierarchical political culture.

This is the context to consider the unlikely rise of Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who has broken expectations in Virginia's gubernatorial race. Sarvis, whose curriculum vitae is very impressive, holds degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, NYU, and George Mason's prestigious Mercatus Institute. It's fair to say that he's the only mathematician-economist-lawyer-software developer in this year's race. He is also the only candidate not burdened with the extraordinary negativity that beleaguers Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.


"The GOP and the Democrats nominated extreme candidates who [both] embody what's wrong with politics," explained Sarvis over the phone as he crisscrossed the Commonwealth. "You can only push people so far away before you cause disequilibrium."

Sarvis, presumably, is a byproduct of that disequilibrium. With both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli in a seeming race to the bottom and attracting stratospheric negatives in the polls, Sarvis' relative likeability and positive message is a breath of fresh air. In a break from the prevailing spiral of negativity enveloping Virginia's race, the Libertarian candidate has made the seemingly unfashionable choice of offering policy solutions and ideas. And despite being locked out of campaign debates and candidate forums, Sarvis still manages a very respectable 10-11 percent in several polls. He has even garnered almost 13 percent in one recent poll, which included a stunning 22 percent among 18-29 year-old Virginians.

For many Republicans, the attraction to Sarvis' candidacy is pretty straightforward. He wants to follow in Texas, Washington, and Nevada's footsteps and end the state income tax. He wants to slash red tape and regulations. He's a big supporter of gun rights and opposes the federalization of health care, emphasizing state-based catastrophic insurance, mental health care, and cash subsidies over leviathan bureaucracies.

At the same time, and despite gaining most of his support from disaffected Republican-leaning voters, Sarvis breaks from the mainstream GOP in major ways, especially in social issues. He's an active proponent of gay marriage, even recently showing up at a Virginia Pride Day event in Richmond, and strongly opposes the War on Drugs, which he says "has produced well-financed, well-armed, violent criminal enterprises." He also supports legalizing marijuana. Even his anti-regulation rhetoric is unconventional, speaking as much to the generally unspoken realities of the carve-outs and crony capitalism that all too often accompanies incentives and regulation. Sarvis seems to be among the few to recognize a difference between big business and free markets.

It might seem easy to write off Sarvis' campaign as a one-time outlier borne from voters' palpable dissatisfaction with the major parties' meager offerings. But in many ways, Sarvis might represent a glimpse of Virginia's, and even America's, possible political future. Well outside the prevailing status quo, Sarvis actually embodies the kind of positive, policy-oriented, and post-partisan option that has been promised since the first ¡si se puede! was uttered ahead of 2008.

Untethered from the litmus tests that strangle the two-party system, Sarvis' campaign appeals to those who have the temerity to support fiscal sobriety and gay marriage, charter schools and ending the drug war. Even Sarvis himself is emblematic of that future. A picture of multiculturalism—Sarvis is half-Irish, half-Chinese and married to an African-American—he and his family are a robust expression of the American Dream 2.0. It's no wonder that he's found a deep well of support among Virginia's young people—Millennials that see no reason to pigeonhole their political preferences by attaching themselves to a major political party.

Even with his good showing in the polls, few expect Sarvis to win. Barring a monumental collapse of one of the two major party candidates, Sarvis seems consigned to third place. But even a strong third place performance could signal a kind of sea change. Although the Cuccinelli campaign has warned that a vote for Sarvis is "casting a ballot for Terry McAuliffe," the reality is that voting for Sarvis is not only a vote for Sarvis, but against the two major-party candidates and for more choice in Virginia politics. James Bacon, a Virginia thought leader and publisher of Bacon's Rebellion, explains that a strong showing for Sarvis could shake up the Commonwealth's political landscape. Not only would the Libertarian Party be automatically entitled to a place on the ballot in the next election, but they would also win increased media exposure.

"Another advantage is that it would be more difficult for media and debate organizers to rationalize the marginalization of Libertarian candidates in electoral coverage and debates." notes Bacon, which he calls potentially "huge."

At the same time, the Sarvis campaign might just serve as a proof of concept for the political viability of contemporary libertarianism. While libertarian ideas have had the most national media exposure as a predominantly Republican or conservative phenomenon through the rise of the Tea Party or Senator Rand Paul, Sarvis offers a more explicitly independent variant untainted by the Republican Party's (fairly or unfairly) cranky reputation. Crucially, the Sarvis campaign well demonstrates that libertarianism can be realistic, pragmatic, relevant—and most importantly—can appeal to voters. With a good turnout for Sarvis, one can reasonably envision a Virginia where third-party candidates not only contend for the big races, but also begin to find their way into county boards, city councils, school boards and the state legislature. For a state that has long had a settled order, this could change everything.

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a former economic development practitioner and a native of Virginia.