While you weren’t watching, a Kansas Citian named Austin Petersen recently finished second in a national race to be presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party.
This week he reconnected with his fans in a livestream video from a friend’s Plaza area duplex. Couch surfing for the time being, Petersen, 35, was barefoot. A few minutes earlier he had thrown a flannel button-down over a Superman T-shirt.
It had been more than a week since Petersen last addressed his supporters by streaming live messages through his Facebook account. As he spoke to his iPhone mounted on a tripod, the little screen flashed comments, likes, heart symbols and emojis as followers joined in.
After three minutes, Petersen had 700 listening.
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“You guys missed me, huh?” he beamed, his thumbs up. “Give me some hearts and likes and loves up there if you missed me. I missed you guys, too.”
Welcome, perhaps, to the presidential campaign of the future.
Though a no-name a few months back, and pretty much still, Petersen represents the front edge of a generation of Americans happy to rally, canvass and stump without venturing anywhere near the county fairgrounds.
Last October, Petersen was living in a sixplex behind a midtown QuikTrip when he announced his candidacy on Facebook.
Never a public officeholder, he was chided by some in his party as an attention-seeking, trash-talking internet troll. Yet he won the affection of former GOP strategist Mary Matalin and conservative radio host Glenn Beck.
That helped Petersen break from what was a 16-person field of Libertarian presidential aspirants to challenge the front-runner, former two-term New Mexico governor Gary Johnson.
Johnson is a gray-headed boomer whom Petersen has teased as looking “sleepy.” Petersen said the luckless Libertarians needed a jolt of energy.
The party’s pick in 2012, Johnson ultimately took the nomination again at the national convention last month. On the second ballot, delegates convening in Florida cast 518 votes for Johnson and 203 for Petersen.
Some grumbled that Petersen’s cheeky plays to social media split the party and gave the upstart an unfair advantage. But on the recent livestream from his buddy’s pad, Petersen raved about the possibilities.
“This technology right now is allowing people like yourself and myself to be empowered so that our generation can make a big difference,” he said. “In politics and in business.”
Besides holding the technological keys to building an audience, Petersen represents a type of national candidate who could find success down the road among certain millennials. Spurning the political establishment, he was among young activists who in 2008 and 2012 threw their energy and votes behind the Libertarian-like presidential bids of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Paul ran twice as a Republican. But Libertarians hope that many of those activists — fiscally conservative, socially liberal and in some cases anti-abortion — will turn to the Libertarian Party amid rising voter discontent in both Republican and Democratic circles.
“In fact,” said Greg Tlapek, executive director of the Libertarian Party of Missouri, “right now the people most engaged in the party are Petersen supporters. And they’re all in,” even without Petersen on the presidential ticket.
How Petersen became the runner-up speaks to 2016 culture and the weird turns that politics have taken.
Raised on a farm in Peculiar, Mo., Petersen studied musical theater in college and launched a career that teeter-tottered between performance and limited-government politics.
He has acted, modeled for magazine ads, worked in Washington, D.C., for the Libertarian National Committee and helped produce a Fox cable show popular with tea partiers — “FreedomWatch,” starring Judge Andrew Napolitano.
While Petersen was working a side job at the FAO Schwarz toy store in New York City, comedian Conan O’Brien happened to visit with a camera crew. Petersen’s few seconds on late-night TV are included in his campaign biography.
His founding of The Libertarian Republic.com and a for-profit consulting firm specializing in photo and video services complete Petersen’s branding.
How did all this merge into a presidential candidacy?
In politics as in life, Petersen said, “it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Do you look confident? … Case in point, Donald Trump!”
Indeed, Trump’s rise in the GOP helped Petersen rise in the Libertarian Party.
Last fall it became apparent to Petersen that his favored presidential candidate — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, son of Ron, a Kentucky Republican — had no traction. Petersen filed the necessary papers to run for president even though he was 34, which the U.S. Constitution says is too young to take the oath.
In February, however, he would reach the minimum presidential age of 35.
His campaign slogan: “Taking over government to leave everyone alone.”
His punch line in speeches at state Libertarian conventions: “I want gay married couples to be able to protect their marijuana fields with fully automatic rifles.”
And then a burst of luck: Trump shot to the front of the GOP pack and never looked back.
When U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas suspended his campaign in early May, some pro-life conservatives looked at the Libertarian presidential contenders and found Petersen, a rare pro-lifer in the party ranks.
Yes, he opposes abortion rights but does so as a secular humanist, not for religious reasons.
“I can’t stand dogma,” Petersen said.
Any number of his policy positions may change if circumstances and new information call for change, he tells supporters. For now, he is comfortable in the belief that liberty begins at conception.
The anti-Trump searchers included longtime Republican strategist and TV talking head Matalin. She had heard Petersen on Beck’s radio show and, like Beck, was impressed.
“We never sought her endorsement,” said Petersen. “One morning I was checking our accounts and saw this donation from Mary Matalin.”
She later wrote on the National Review’s website that the two-party system is ready to fall and Austin Petersen could draw from both sides. Given Petersen’s devotion to free market economics and his “classical liberal understanding of the pursuit of happiness … he hits the political sweet spot for millions of fed-up Americans,” Matalin declared.
Millions who had never heard of him, that is.
Just two months earlier, Petersen had finished behind “uncommitted” on the Libertarian ballot in the Missouri presidential primary. Now Matalin, Beck and others in the conservative podcast circuit (Dana Loesch called him her instant best friend) had made Petersen a third-party wunderkid.
His campaign of a few paid staffers and assorted volunteers, livestreaming daily and crashing nightly at the Overland Park headquarters, raised about $100,000 through online crowdsourcing.
His Facebook page swelled to more than 95,000 likes.
Anybody can run
“Millennials are growing up and becoming a political force,” said Joe Trotter, 29, a Petersen friend who served as campaign communications director.
The Pew Research Center reported in the spring that the nation’s 75.4 million millennials, which it defined as people age 18-34 in 2015, had surpassed the number of living baby boomers.
“And the technology we’ve grown up with lends itself to a more decentralized organization, where we can work together and communicate remotely,” Trotter said. “You don’t need a TV studio to speak to voters.”
Not everybody is loving it.
While it’s wonderful that any U.S. citizen 35 or older can run for president, “the downside of that is … well, anybody can run for president,” blogged Wisconsin Libertarian activist Andy Craig, a supporter of party standard-bearer Johnson and passionately anti-Petersen.
Craig continued: “This means that alongside the serious contenders to be the nominee … we usually have a parade of delusional vanity campaigns trying to weasel their way into 15 minutes in the spotlight.”
Brian Doherty, a senior editor for the Libertarian-minded magazine Reason, said some older party members dislike Petersen in part because of his embrace of generational values that some believe mark the millennials.
Self-promotional. All about brand. Performing online 24/7.
“He has a background in musical theater and that comes across,” Doherty said. “To some, he’s a young man playing a Founding Father.”
Doherty allowed that Petersen also is well educated in the core constitutional principles that appealed to the Ron Paul armies of 2008 and 2012.
Thomas Fiedler, 33, was among the foot soldiers.
Ever since grade school, when he was drawn to independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, Fiedler, of Mexico, Mo., has rooted for offbeat, free market underdogs.
When he first caught Petersen on a livestream, Fiedler texted a question and was stunned how the candidate began his response: “Well, Thomas, that’s a great question…”
The two had never met. “That blew me away,” said Fiedler, who afterward began livestreaming Mexico City Council meetings.
Said Petersen of the technology: “That’s democracy.”
As for his future, he isn’t certain where the next apartment will be. Petersen plans to be in Washington next week to launch a nonprofit called the Stonegait Institute, a think tank and political action committee named after his family’s farm.
He is producing footage of himself that Matalin hopes to distribute among her cable TV friends, according to her office. So he, too, might become a professional talking head.
That livestream talk he shot Tuesday? As of noon Thursday it had 30,800 views.