The Effect of Bob Barr's Candidacy

The Libertarian Party is the largest third party in the United States. At its recent party convention in Denver, it nominated former Republican Congressman Bob Barr as its nominee. Barr hails from Georgia and is probably best known for his role in the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. Barr became a Libertarian in 2006, largely because of his disagreements with the Republican Party on the Iraq War, civil liberties, and the Republicans' diminished credibility regarding spending.

Since Ross Perot's presidential run in 1992, independent and third party candidates have largely been viewed as gadfly candidates or spoilers. Pat Buchanan was a thorn in the Republicans' side throughout the 1990s. Democrats still lament Ralph Nader's 2000 run. The Green Party is keeping Democrats on their toes in local elections in liberal bastions like San Francisco. And ideological conservatives always have the Constitution Party available as a repository for their votes if their natural home, the Republican Party, veers too far off course.

Bob Barr will not win this year's presidential election, but his candidacy may significantly hamper John McCain. Barr is a credible and proven candidate whose ideas are shared by significant slices of the electorate. So even though many voters probably have never heard of the Libertarian Party, it will not be as easy for his political opponents to brand him as a fringe candidate.

Barr could potentially appeal to the following groups:

1. Disaffected conservatives and Republicans who have not yet warmed to John McCain's candidacy. It is no secret that Republicans are comparatively less enthusiastic about their nominee than the Democrats. Democrats are passionate about Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton. Republicans are only lukewarm about John McCain, who essentially won the nomination by staving off political elimination the longest.

2. Ron Paul supporters. Given the ideological overlap between the two candidates, Barr could reap the benefits of a Paul endorsement. This would be a boon to Barr because he would have access to Paul's spirited supporters and the extensive donor network he created. Even though the GOP race is locked up, Ron Paul still managed to win a significant 24% of the vote in the little noticed Idaho Republican primary last week.

3. Conservative Obama supporters who agree with him on Iraq, disagree with his philosophical liberalism, and support him regardless because they like his "change" message. There are many Republicans who are dissatisfied not just with the way things are going in Iraq, but who are also dissatisfied with the United States' role in the international arena in general. They are opposed to nation-building and misguided adventures abroad and would rather invest in the money required to sustain such operations closer to home. These voters are likely more conservative on abortion rights, libertarian on social issues, and conservative on taxes. So Barr may be a more natural fit for them than Obama. And because Barr has bucked his old party on the war and on controversial issues such as the Patriot Act, he could parry charges of partisanship more effectively than someone who toes the party line.

Barr's appeal to this third group would appear to be a threat to Obama, but because McCain has also tried to position himself as a maverick or an independent, it could end up as a wash. But because Barr is a former Republican, he is probably a greater threat to John McCain than Barack Obama, especially because the first two groups I listed above are the ones McCain will have to try the hardest to keep in his tent.

Barr's candidacy will probably be most problematic for McCain in his home state of Georgia and in the neighboring states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

In these Southern states, Obama's stranglehold on the Black vote will force McCain to keep his margins among White and conservative voters sufficiently high in order to carry them in the general election. This is important because these Southern states, especially South Carolina and Georgia, have such a high percentage of Black voters that will turn out in droves for Obama.

The threat he poses in Georgia is obvious. Seeing that Barr hails from the Peach State, his name recognition is higher and many Georgians may be more inclined to support one of their own. Also, money that Georgians donate to the former congressman from the 7th District is money they're not donating to the Republican nominee.

Another risk is that Florida and North Carolina are considerably less conservative than other Southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi. This means Obama could be more competitive in these states, thus forcing McCain to do an even better job of holding his own. Losing 5% of his conservative support to Barr in a noncompetitive state like Kentucky wouldn't matter much. But in a more competitive state like North Carolina, it could potentially be enough to tip the state to Democrats' side.

Tennessee is not really considered a battleground state, but former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. ran a particularly strong Senate campaign there in 2006 and lost by only three points. This is significant because it proved that a Black candidate could win a high profile statewide election in a Southern state. If Obama is able to regain his footing among rural voters, he could potentially put Tennessee in the same category as North Carolina, thus making Barr's threat to McCain even more serious.

John McCain would be wise to neutralize Bob Barr by stressing his commitment to fiscal conservatism, political independence, and social conservative causes. This might not work too well with moderates, but it could at least help keep angry and disenchanted conservatives from defecting to Barr.

9 comment(s):

Freadom said...

Good post. I do see some good ideas come out of the libertarian camp, and I even thought about making a post about it once. These 3rd party candidates force repubs and dems to concentrate on issues they might have otherwise ignored.

Mark in Austin said...

Anthony, I think it may turn out that Barr has appeal to Colorado ranchers - enough to assure CO goes D.

How strong was Barr in his CD at the end?

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

read my post quicksand IN passing

Anthony Palmer said...


I voted Libertarian in 2004. I think Republicans are Libertarians' friends when it comes to economics, but Libertarians are Democrats' friends when it comes to social issues.

Third-party voting went down in 2004 in part because of the 2000 election results. These parties were seen as spoiler candidates or people thought "this election is too important to waste my vote on a third party." Funny, each election is "important." I think funding is the biggest obstacle third parties face.



I haven't had any time to comment over at The Fix lately because of my job. But thanks for dropping by. The libertarian aspect definitely will resonate in the West. I can't believe I didn't even mention that! It's not just race, it's ideology! So Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada could all give McCain heartburn if Barr gains traction.

I don't know what Barr's margins of victory were, but I do know that it was his libertarian approach to medicinal marijuana that led to his defeat. That's an example of why I don't think social conservatism and leave me alone conservatism can coexist.



I'll check it out.

Freadom said...

Isnt' it true that Libertarians are also against the war?

Anthony Palmer said...

Freadom (warning--long comment ahead),

Libertarians are noninterventionists, not isolationists. (There's a difference.) They support the mission in Afghanistan because that is direct retaliation against those who perpetuated the September 11 attacks. Iraq, on the other hand, was an unnecessary war that has done more harm than good and Libertarians do not support it.

Libertarians believe the United States should have no foreign entanglements whatsoever. This means closing our military bases overseas, withdrawing from the United Nations, NATO, etc., and trading with everyone who is willing to trade with us.

It seems like a radical point of view, but you'll notice that terrorists aren't attacking Sweden, Switzerland, and Brazil. Those countries have noninterventionist foreign policies. (North Korea would be an example of an isolationist country, which is totally different.) Libertarians argue that our selective involvement with certain countries inflames tensions however unintentionally and suggests to other countries that we are potential enemies by association. And they argue that claiming interests around the world in a way that other countries cannot do (without our own threats of retaliation) also goes against libertarianism.

Libertarianism and liberalism are sometimes confused in this regard. Liberals believe in emphasizing international cooperation and using the world community and international institutions to address international disputes. Libertarians, however, believe the US should have no need to be a part of such organizations because they restrict our own sense of liberty (we have to follow their rules) and dabbling in other countries' affairs unprovoked creates the risk of blowback. You can't adopt policies that advantage one nation at the expense of another and not expect the other nation to feel slighted or want to enact some sort of payback.

According to Osama bin Laden, two of the reasons why Al Qaeda was created was because of 1) our support for Israel, and 2) the presence of US military troops in the "holy land" of Saudi Arabia. If a more libertarian approach to foreign policy had existed in the 80s and 90s, it is quite possible, libertarians argue, that Al Qaeda would not have had a reason to be created and that would have resulted in one less enemy for the United States.

This is obviously not a popular position in the United States at present, but I think it makes a lot of sense. Ron Paul may have been booed over and over again in the debates, but the conservative and liberal positions we've adopted in the past regarding foreign policy haven't worked out so well, have they?

Anthony Palmer said...


This is taken from the official Libertarian Party platform at www.lp.org.

American foreign policy should seek an America at peace with the world and its defense against attack from abroad. We would end the current U.S. government policy of foreign intervention, including military and economic aid. We recognize the right of all people to resist tyranny and defend themselves and their rights. We condemn the use of force, and especially the use of terrorism, against the innocent, regardless of whether such acts are committed by governments or by political or revolutionary groups.

I also recommend you read the Libertarian Party's view on foreign policy here. It might advocate views that are unpopular, but I think they are at least worth consideration.

Ted said...

Q&A; How can McCain SIMULTANEOUSLY attract both Hillary AND Bob Barr voters? Answer: PALIN Veep!

Anthony Palmer said...


Sarah Palin is clearly a rising star in the GOP, but she would take away one of the GOP's primary weapons against Obama because she could also be tarred as too young (she's younger than Obama at 44) and too inexperienced (she won her first gubernatorial election in 2006). McCain doesn't have a lot of weapons at his disposal, so I think he should avoid ceding any of them through a VP pick that is not as strong as possible.

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