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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman September 9, 2013

Libertarians say they're the third largest political party

In politics -- or any blood sport -- it’s rare to hear a team proudly chant, "We’re No. 3! We’re No. 3!"

But that’s what we heard from Libertarians in the purple state of Florida.

We spotted a claim about the numbers and growth of libertarians in an announcement about a Libertarian event in Broward County:

"The Libertarian Party is the third-largest organized political party in the United States and has seen tremendous growth over the last two years as many Democrats and Republicans have become disenchanted with their respective parties." (The article was written by Karl Dickey who serves on the Libertarian Party of Florida’s executive committee and represents Broward, Palm Beach and Hendry counties.) We found a similar claim on the Libertarian Party of Broward website that the party is "the third-largest political party in the U.S."

We wanted to explore the numbers and the power of the Libertarian Party. Is it the third-largest party in the country?

We’ve looked at the numbers of Libertarians in the past. But as Sen. Rand Paul -- a Kentucky Republican with a libertarian outlook -- makes headlines as a potential 2016 presidential contender, it seemed like a good time to revisit the numbers.

Counting libertarians

Libertarian activists and political scientists we contacted suggested the same source: Richard Winger, a Libertarian in California and editor of a monthly newsletter, Ballot Access News, which includes data on party registration that Winger researches.

His December issue showed there were 325,807 registered Libertarians nationwide. (About half the states tally Libertarians, Winger’s data shows.)

The number of registered Libertarians was higher than other national third parties including the Green, Constitution or Reform parties.

But with Democrats’ registration at 43.5 million and Republicans at 41.3 million according to Winger’s data, that puts any third-place finisher trailing way behind.

Also, the number of Libertarians was substantially lower than two catch-all categories which Winger calls "indp. misc" at 26.8 million and "other" at 2.9 million.

The miscellaneous category includes states that have a miscellaneous category, as well as voters who write in answers (such as "birthday party") on their registration. Winger’s "other" includes a combination of actual parties.

Since those catch-all categories were large, we picked a couple of states to look in more detail at third-party registrations.

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In California, there were 477,129 registered with the American Independent Party. In New York, there were 430,072 registered with the Independence Party as of November 2012.

But Winger said those groups in California and New York aren’t "nationally organized parties. Those are one-state parties." That’s why when Winger talks about Libertarians’ voter registration he includes the phrase "nationally organized" -- something the Libertarians in Broward omitted.

We’re not suggesting that those state parties in California or New York are powerful players nationwide -- or even in their own states. Some New York voters wrongly think they are registering as independents, according to the New York Daily News.

Markham Robinson, a leader with the American Independent Party, told PolitiFact in an interview that he did a survey of AIP voters and of the 200 who responded, one-third didn’t realize they had registered with a party.

Still, Robinson said he’d give that third ranking to his own group based on voter registration.

Robinson suggested another way to measure third-party influence: a group’s registration as a percentage of total voters. By that method, he gave a shout-out to the Independent American Party in Nevada -- they garnered almost 5 percent of the state’s registration as of October.

Libertarians do have a point when they say they are growing. Ballot Access News showed in 2008 there were 240,328 Libertarians, compared with 325,807 in 2012, an increase of about 36 percent.

But their power lies not in electing Libertarians but more in the libertarian philosophy making inroads with the GOP. And some experts told us to examine votes received or the number of candidates who ran as signs of party strength rather than just voter registration.

In 2012, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson received about 1.3 million votes -- more than any other third-party candidate. Johnson's tally, amounting to about 1 percent, is the largest for a non-major-party candidate since Ralph Nader's Green race in 2000, said J. David Gillespie, author of a book on third parties.

"Libertarians always run far more people for congressional and state legislative seats across the nation than do the Greens, Constitution Party, or any other third party," he said.

Some libertarians choose not to register with the Libertarian Party, either because they don’t like party labels or so they can participate in the nominating contests held by the major parties.

Libertarians "do have influence beyond their size, because libertarian ideas appeal to people on both left and right," said Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at the University of California.

Our ruling

The Libertarian Party in Broward said on its website that the Libertarian Party "is the third-largest political party in the U.S."

Quantifying the number of Libertarians is tricky; some states don’t track the affiliation. As for those officially registered with the Libertarian Party, it’s about 326,000. Some state-based parties -- most notably the Independence Party in New York and the American Independent Party in California -- have more people registered to their party than that, though.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Ballot Access News, December 2008 and 2012 issues

Florida Division of Elections, Voter registration book closing statistics, 2008 and 2012

PolitiFact, "Libertarian Gary Johnson says he’ll be on the ballot in every presidential state, far outpacing any other third-party candidate," Sept. 20, 2012

PolitiFact, "Libertarian Party says major parties have shed voters since 2008 while Libertarian registrations are up," June 19, 2010

POLITICO, "Libertarianism goes mainstream,"  April 7, 2013

Washington Post The Fix blog, "Libertarianism is in vogue. Again," June  9, 2013

Washington Post, "Libertarians flex their muscle in the GOP," July 31, 2013

The Atlantic, "America’s Libertarian Moment," Aug. 18, 2013

Time, "The 100 most influential people in the world," April 18, 2013

New York Daily News, "Independence Party’s confusing name has tricked thousands of New Yorkers," Dec. 11, 2012

Dallas Morning News, "Ward’s party affiliation surprises trustee," Accessed in Nexis, Sept. 29, 2000

Federal register, U.S. Electoral College, 2012

Gallup, "Many Americans use multiple labels to describe their ideology," Dec. 6, 2006

Libertarian Party of Broward County, Website, Accessed Sept. 3, 2013

Independent American Party of Nevada, Website, Accessed Sept. 4,  2013

Nevada Secretary of State, Voter Registration Statistics, October 2012

California Secretary of State, Report of registration,  Oct. 22, 2012

New York State Board of Elections, Voter enrollment data, Nov. 1, 2012

Interview, J. David Gillespie, College  of Charleston adjunct political science professor and author of Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two Party Politics (2012), Aug. 23,  2013

Interview, Dr. Michael P. McDonald, Associate Professor George Mason University, Aug. 23, 2013

Interview, Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, Aug. 30, 2013

Interview, Shaun Bowler, Associate Dean for Social Sciences College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Department of Political Science UC Riverside, Aug. 23, 2013

Interview, Carla Howell, director of the national Libertarian Party, Aug. 23, 2013

Interview, Karl Dickey, member of the Libertarian Party of Florida’s executive committee, Aug. 23, 2013

Interview, Dana Moxley Cummings, Chair of Libertarian Party of Florida, Aug. 28, 2013

Interview, Macy John, spokesman, Libertarian Party of Florida, Aug. 23, 2013

Interview, David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, Aug.27, 2013

Interview, Tom Connolly, spokesman New York State Board of Elections, Aug. 30, 2013

Interview, Don Sheldon, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Broward County, Sept. 3, 2013

Interview, Brittany Lesser, spokeswoman Florida Division of Elections, Sept. 3, 2013

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