Pharos-Tribune

October 24, 2012

Libertarians try to leverage ‘Survivor’ celebrity to win votes

Candidate draws crowd just by showing up

by Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — The Democratic and Republican candidates running for governor this year are spending millions upon millions of dollars to get voters to pay attention to them. The third guy in the race just has to show up.

Rupert Boneham, the Libertarian Party’s nominee, is a crowd-gathering celebrity who has turned his fame as a fan-favorite, three-time cast member of the “Survivor” reality-TV show into a platform for his politics.

His polling numbers are low – the September Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll gave him just five percent of the vote – but ardor for him seems high.

After the first gubernatorial debate in Zionsville, where he stood on stage between Democrat John Gregg and Republican Mike Pence, fans waited in line to meet him and snap his photo with their smart phones. The other guys didn’t attract that kind of devotion.

But then, the other guys didn’t spend this past summer signing their campaign photos with “Argh!” –  Boneham’s signature victory cry from his days as a “Survivor” castaway.

Boneham’s bushy-bearded pirate persona is only part jest. As the campaign has worn on, he’s dug deeper into policy issues that impact the state and has used the televised gubernatorial debates to talk about need for more vocational education, more transparency in government, and a more redemptive approach to criminal justice.

He’s used his celebrity profile to elevate the profile of the Libertarian Party – the only political party outside of the two big ones that has a place on the Indiana ballot this November.

“To see Rupert do what he does is amazing. Everywhere we go, people line up to see him,” said Brad Klopfenstein, a longtime Libertarian and Boneham’s running mate. “He’s bringing people into the political process who are not the traditional voters.”

Boneham had a fan base of millions when he was on TV (he won 85 percent of 38 million votes to be named the series’ favorite cast member during the 2004 season) but he’s convinced his appeal is that of an underdog.

“Myself running brings politics a little closer to home for a lot of people,” Boneham said. “I am that everyday guy we all like to think we are, standing up and making that stance and running for a pretty significant office. Every one of us should be able to do that.”

Boneham, 47, was born in Detroit and grew up in Kokomo. He moved to Texas after high school, started on a nursing degree that he never completed, then moved to Indianapolis in 1990. For the past 20 years, he’s run a non-profit organization that offers mentoring for at-risk teens. He donated part of the $1 million prize he won on “Survivor” to his charity, Rupert’s Kids. 

Boneham didn’t get involved in politics until relatively recently, after he ran up against some government regulations that made it harder for his charity to do its work, he said. Once he did, it didn’t take him long, he said, to figure out he was a Libertarian.

He liked the party’s core belief: That the only legitimate use of government power is to preserve the inalienable rights of life, liberty, property and self-governance. For Boneham, that means government needs to get out the business of providing entitlements, whether that’s welfare for the poor or “corporate welfare” such as tax credits and subsidies for big business. He also believes government has no business banning guns or gay marriage.

Klopfenstein figured out he was a Libertarian 20 years ago, when he was a student at Purdue University. While watching C-SPAN, he heard Libertarian presidential candidate Andre Moreau talk about how Libertarians believed in scaling back the size of government and getting government out of people’s personal lives.

“I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I am,’” Klopfenstein said.

Soon after, he got involved with the Indiana Libertarian Party’s 1994 effort to win “ballot status,” which meant turning out enough voters to meet Indiana’s tough ballot-access laws. No other minor party has been able to do that.

Boneham and Klopfenstein believe their campaign has had impact. They’re convinced the final vote tally will be several points higher than election forecasters predict.

Until then, they’ll continue campaigning in their low-budget way: traveling around the state in a loaned RV, asking for campaign contributions to help pay for the gas to keep going, and making their case that a vote for third party candidate – no matter how long the odds – is still a vote that counts.

“The only way you can waste your vote,” said Boneham, “is to not vote at all.”

• Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com