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Trump is a Republican. RFK is a Democrat. They're both wooing Libertarians

This combination photo shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on May 1, 2024, in Waukesha, Wis., left, and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. during a campaign event, Oct. 9, 2023, in Philadelphia. Trump is addressing the Libertarian National Convention Saturday, May 25, 2024, courting a segment of the conservative electorate that's often skeptical of the former president's bombast while trying to ensure attendees aren't drawn to independent White House hopeful Kennedy, Jr.
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This combination photo shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally on May 1, 2024, in Waukesha, Wis., left, and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. during a campaign event, Oct. 9, 2023, in Philadelphia. Trump is addressing the Libertarian National Convention Saturday, May 25, 2024, courting a segment of the conservative electorate that's often skeptical of the former president's bombast while trying to ensure attendees aren't drawn to independent White House hopeful Kennedy, Jr.

Updated May 25, 2024 at 07:00 AM ET

The Libertarian Party is holding its national convention to select its presidential nominee, who will likely be overshadowed by speeches from Republican former President Donald Trump and independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

The gambit comes as Libertarians have seen internal struggle over the direction of the party’s future and as third-party candidates could play an outsized role in deciding the outcome of the 2024 presidential race.

Kennedy and Trump do not have many ideological overlaps with libertarians, but they do bring outside attention and media coverage to the party and its platform.

Libertarians have ballot access in 37 states, including key battlegrounds like Georgia, Michigan and Arizona, as well as a consistent enough presence in those states to have some influence over who wins in November, even though it won’t be a Libertarian.

Angela McArdle, chair of the Libertarian Party explained in a recent podcast interview the logic behind having Kennedy and Trump speak.

“They need us,” she said. “And so we have a lot of bargaining chips right now, and there’s so much that we can do without compromise, without ceding any ground – it’s literally just inviting them to share the stage with us.”

McArdle and others in the party say getting major candidates to the convention stage will have them engage with and hopefully eventually adopt libertarian views on a range of issues.

“You have to go talk to Republicans and Democrats, that's how this works,” she said. “We're a political minority, we don't get elected and then only work with libertarians, you've got to work with other people and try to pull them in your direction.”

Not everyone is thrilled by having the party’s marquee meeting overshadowed by hosting two presidential candidates that don’t support the party’s goals. Some of that split was on display Friday, when there were several failed attempts to rescind the speaking offer for Kennedy and Trump and give the time back to Libertarian candidates.

The Libertarian Party has seen internal turmoil in recent years, with a faction called the Mises Caucus taking charge and taking a more aggressive, hardline and sometimes isolating stance on the party and its future. In many ways, they align more with the far right of the GOP.

Members of the Classical Liberal Caucus have pointed out that Trump and Kennedy don’t align with libertarian values, and note that bringing these candidates to the convention increases the likelihood they poach voters from the Libertarian candidate.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Friday. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Jose Luis Magana / AP
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FR159526 AP
Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks during the Libertarian National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington Friday.

In many ways, the spat over the convention is reminiscent of the meme that sees three Spider-Mans in a standoff pointing at each other, because the Libertarian Party, Kennedy and Trump are all competing for this same pool of voters.

Kennedy’s Friday afternoon speech lambasted Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and said the Republican “took a hammer and tongs” to the Constitution.

“With lockdowns, the mask mandates, the travel restrictions, President Trump presided over the greatest restriction on individual liberties this country has ever known,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s appearance at the convention comes as he seeks ballot access, so his speech is another higher-profile opportunity for his campaign to reach more people that could help sign petitions to get him qualified in more states.

The Libertarian Party usually earns a small percentage of the popular vote depending on the state and race and year, and with several swing states potentially decided by narrow margins again, more people voting Libertarian has more of an impact on who ultimately wins the White House.

That’s a reason Trump is there: to try and win these voters back into his fold, show them that he shares at least some of their values — and that he can act on them as president.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 25, 2024 at 11:32 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly identified the chair of the Libertarian Party as Megan McArdle. It is Angela McArdle.
Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.
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