Friday, April 4, 2008

Bob Barr: Threat or menace?

An interesting exchange at The American Spectator blog over whether a Bob Barr presidential run on the Libertarian ticket would hurt John McCain.

Philip Klein:
The more I think about it, Bob Barr's apparent decision to enter the presidential race may be the worst news John McCain has gotten all year. . . .
If Barr enters the race and captures the Libertarian Party nomination, he will bring a 98 lifetime ACU rating to the table; he has served as a National Rifle Association board member; he sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act; Numbers USA notes that he, "usually supports less immigration, less population growth, less foreign labor" and has been a strong opponent of chain migration; and as far as I can tell, he has a solid pro-life voting record.
James Antle:
Bob Barr certainly could be a threat to John McCain, but it's worth noting that third-party candidates on the right have not done well in previous elections. Pat Buchanan, who is better known than Barr and did much better in the Republican primaries than Ron Paul, got 0.42 percent of the vote as the Reform Party nominee in 2000. . . .
The Libertarians' best showing in history, with Ed Clark in 1980, similarly failed to put a dent into Ronald Reagan. Even if you go back to George Wallace's 13.5 percent and 46 electoral votes in 1968, Nixon still won the presidency.
In the complete post, James offers an extensive history lesson on third-party candidates, but the problem with citing precedent in politics is that every election is different, so no historical analogy is perfect.

That may be especially true in this unprecedented year, when the Democrats will nominate either a woman or a black man, and when there is neither an incumbent president nor vice-president in the race. It's what George Carlin once called "vuja de": The peculiar feeling that this has never happened before.

Simply by being the Republican standard-bearer, John McCain faces three major disadvantages in 2008:
  • There's a war on. It's unpopular with Democrats, with independents, and with a minority of Republicans. (Ron Paul's best result was 14% in the Nevada caucuses.) John McCain is the pro-war candidate, and that puts him in a tough position from the start.
  • In the final year of a two-term Republican administration, the economy is on life-support, being propped up by unprecedented interventions from the Fed. (You should have heard how the crowd in Greensburg, Pa., cheered Hillary's class-warfare applause lines last week.) McCain faces a huge challenge to escape the political fallout of the mortgage crisis and economic slump.
  • The Democrats are hungry. Democrats have suffered a long streak of tough breaks, including the 2000 Florida recount, the 2002 midterm setback and Bush's re-election in 2004. Democrats' midterm victory in 2006 helped even the score, but the Dems still have an edge in what might be called emotional momentum. They're fired up; Republicans are not.
Regardless of who the GOP nominee is, this looks like a bad year for Republicans. But McCain has the additional disadvantage of having spent the past 10 years attacking the GOP's conservative base. He sponsored McCain-Feingold, he trashed religious conservatives as "agents of intolerance," he voted against tax cuts, he twice sponsored bills granting amnesty to illegals -- his ACU rating for 2006 was a meager 65, and his average ACU rating since 1998 was only 74.

McCain is clearly vulnerable to a challenger on his right, and the prospect that 2008 will be a bad year for Republicans only heightens his vulnerability. Here's why: If polls in October show McCain lagging substantially behind the Democratic candidate, many disgruntled conservatives will figure there's no hope for McCain anyway, so why not vote for Barr to show their dissatisfaction with the GOP?

If the October polls show a neck-and-neck race, conservatives who might not be huge John McCain fans will rally to his cause anyway, just to prevent the election of a Democrat. But if McCain is trailing badly, then a vote for Barr has no real consequence.

This was a big factor in what happened to Bob Dole in 1996. If the October polls had shown that Dole had a chance to defeat Clinton, Dole might have benefitted from the "rally effect." Instead, Clinton got 49%, Dole got 41% and third-party candidates (Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Harry Browne, Howard Phillips, etc.) divvied up the other 10%.

In other words, a third-party challenge tends to hurt a major-party candidate mainly when the major-party candidate already looks like a loser. It's the opposite of a bandwagon effect (in which undecided voters trend toward the candidate who looks like a winner). There are many voters who wouldn't vote for any Democrat, but who also won't vote for a Republican who looks like a loser.

It is an ill omen for McCain that, having secured the GOP nomination while the Democrats are still badly divided, as of April 3 he is only polling even with Obama, and barely ahead of Hillary. His best hope is that the Democrats disintegrate in Denver, a la Chicago '68.

Speaking of 1968, Antle's analogy is misapplied. Humphrey was the candidate who represented the incumbent party and was defending the outgoing president's war. Nixon represented the party that hadn't had the White House in eight years and promised "change." Wallace's third-party challenge largely appealed to disgruntled Democrats.

If precedent is prediction, then, Nixon's election in '68 is actually evidence that Barr (appealing to the incumbent party's disgruntled voters) will hurt John McCain in November.

UPDATE: Leslie Carbone adds a pithy comment:
It's time for the GOP to get over the notion that it "owns" conservative votes, and that our voting for a third-party candidate constitutes giving away something that belongs to them.
I met Ms. Carbone at a memorial for John Berthoud.


  1. Bob Barr can only "hurt" John McCain to the extent that voters who would otherwise vote for Sen. McCain vote instead for Rep. Barr. But most conservatives who would vote for Rep. Barr wouldn't vote for Sen. McCain anyway; they'd vote for another third- party candidate, write in, or stay home. It's time for the GOP to get over the notion that it "owns" conservative votes, and that our voting for a third-party candidate constitutes giving away something that belongs to them.

  2. I'm most certainly voting for a third party. Both parties act like we the voter, "owe" them our votes after the robbed us and future generations.