The Ron Paul newsletter scandal (summarized by Arnold Kling here and Radley Balko here) underscores what I see as the most difficult PR issue for libertarianism: the small-sample problem.
Given the relative rarity of libertarians, both in the public eye and in general, most people’s judgment of libertarianism will be based on a very small sample – often a sample size of one. If the first libertarian someone meets is a smart, reasonable, decent person, they will come away with a positive impression and possibly a willingness to explore further. If the first libertarian someone meets is a wild-eyed lunatic, on the other hand, they could easily write off libertarianism as the ideology of wild-eyed lunatics.
The Paul candidacy presents a special case of the small-sample problem. For many people, Ron Paul is the first and only libertarian-identified candidate they’ve ever seen receive any serious media attention. As a result, they may assume other libertarians share all of his views. Many libertarians, including Kling, are wary of supporting Paul – even though they probably agree more with Paul than anyone else in the field – because they fear the public will assume that all libertarians are anti-immigrant gold-bug conspiracy theorists (and possible closet racists).
Liberals and conservatives don’t have this problem. Everyone understands that these groups contain a gamut of opinion, with some degree of disagreement on every issue. If one candidate goes off the reservation on one issue or another, there’s no real fear that his position will define the movement forever.
This is why, when I talk to young libertarians about how to spread their ideas, I say they should think of themselves as ambassadors for the movement. That means, first and foremost, presenting themselves as fundamentally decent people that you would actually want to have a beer with; and second, being willing to admit the diversity of libertarian thought (“libertarians don’t all agree on this, but…”) before pushing their own peculiar views.
As an aside, I think one reason libertarian ideas have fared so well in the blogging world is that there are enough libertarians online, of both the reasonable and kooky varieties, that non-libertarian political bloggers usually have a fair sense of what libertarians think in general (notwithstanding the occasional smear).