Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bob Barr‘s Libertarian presidential campaign is poised to play a serious role in this year’s election, with early polls showing him taking enough votes from Sen. John McCain to give Democrats a chance to win states that should be safely Republican.

Polls in Georgia and North Carolina over the past two weeks show Mr. Barr winning 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively, of the presidential vote. That would help keep presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama within striking distance of Mr. McCain in those states, which together account for more electoral votes than Florida, Pennsylvania or Ohio.

“Barr does throw a monkey wrench in Republican plans in states people otherwise take for granted as Republican states,” said Matt Towery, chief executive officer of InsiderAdvantage, an Atlanta-based polling and political analysis firm that conducted the Georgia poll, and one-time political adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Towery said North Carolina and Georgia have large black populations that Mr. Obama can tap to boost his turnout numbers, and both have conservative-leaning voters whose dissatisfaction with President Bush could lead them to a third-party candidate.

The Georgia poll, taken just before Mr. Barr secured the Libertarian nomination, gave Mr. McCain 45 percent support, Mr. Obama 35 percent and Mr. Barr 8 percent. In North Carolina, a Public Policy Polling survey released Monday found Mr. McCain at 43 percent, Mr. Obama at 40 percent and Mr. Barr at 6 percent. The poll’s authors said Mr. Barr’s support appeared to come particularly from independents who previously broke for Mr. McCain.

“It’s a long way until the election, but the early indication is that Bob Barr’s presence on the ballot could be a good sign for whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “He’s likely to siphon off more voters who would otherwise be inclined to vote for McCain than he is from Clinton or Obama.”

North Carolina hasn’t gone to a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Georgia last supported a Democratic nominee in 1992 when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton grabbed its support en route to the Oval Office.

Mr. Barr is a former Republican congressman from Georgia who switched to the Libertarian Party in 2006. He collected his new party’s presidential nomination on the sixth ballot on May 25.

Republicans said they are waiting to see whether Mr. Barr turns out to be like Ross Perot or more like previous Libertarian candidates who failed to crack more than 1 percent.

“It’s too early to tell what kind of candidacy Bob Barr is going to have,” said Brent Woodcox, a spokesman for North Carolina’s Republican Party. He said he also has questions about how the poll was conducted, but that Republicans will try to compete for every vote, particularly among independents who are shaping up to be more important than ever.

In the past two elections, the Libertarian candidate didn’t register half of a percentage point nationwide, so party faithful are debating where Mr. Barr should focus his efforts to try to make the best showing.

In 2000, Harry Browne won 1.4 percent of the vote in Georgia and less than half a percentage point in North Carolina. In 2000, Michael Badnarik won just more than half a percentage point in Georgia and about a third of a point in North Carolina.

Russ Verney, Mr. Barr’s campaign manager, who was involved with both of Mr. Perot’s Reform Party campaigns, said campaign operatives will look to the county level and below to find locales to target their message. He said the early polls are encouraging.

“It shows us with great opportunities with the public, a lot of them who don’t know who Bob is, and we have an opportunity to introduce him,” he said.

J. David Gillespie, a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina who is working on the second edition of his book “Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America,” said Libertarians’ best year in presidential elections was 1980, when they won just over 1 percent of the vote.

But he said the party has a national base, and party officials said they expect to be on the ballot on at least 48 states in November.

“Despite its paltry presidential returns in the past, [the Libertarian Party] bears considerable potential as a vehicle of protest, and there are millions of Republican-inclined conservative voters who may see a Barr candidacy as [having] that kind of potential,” Mr. Gillespie said.

He said that is underscored by some Libertarians’ suspicions of their own nominee, who they see as more in line with conservative Republicans than with them.

He said one bright spot for Mr. McCain is that independent candidate Ralph Nader could siphon support from Mr. Obama, though it’s not clear what states that would put into play.

Democrats regularly fault Mr. Nader with costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000 by stealing votes from the vice president and handing the White House to Mr. Bush.

Mr. Verney said Mr. Barr is a new type of Libertarian candidate.

“The past Libertarian presidential nominees have all been great individuals, but they weren’t capable of mounting a credible and competitive campaign. This year, Bob Barr will have a credible and competitive national campaign. The history’s out the window,” Mr. Verney said.

His said one immediate challenge is to try to boost Mr. Barr’s poll numbers to the 15 percent national threshold that the presidential debate commission uses to keep out third-party candidates. But Mr. Verney speculated that the “fraudulent” commission, controlled by Democrats and Republicans, would find another way to exclude Mr. Barr.

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