Ross Douthat’s prediction that Bob Barr will only do about as well as Pat Buchanan in 2000 is obviously the safest way to bet. Third-party challenges on the right have tended to do poorly unless the candidate has some unconservative elements that also allow him to win significant non-conservative support (think George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in both his presidential runs). More purely right-wing third-party candidates have had less impact. John Schmitz, then a sitting Republican congressman, took 1.4 percent of the popular vote in 1972. Ron Paul received just 0.5 percent as the Libertarian Party nominee in 1988, although I agree he would do much better today partly because he could reach beyond the right. Buchanan, the biggest-name recent conservative to bolt the GOP, won only 0.4 percent. The Constitution Party has never even cracked 200,000 votes nationally, other smaller right-wing parties have fared worse.
Douthat is right that there is a “more favorable landscape for a right-of-center protest candidate” than in 2000 but Barr lacks Buchanan’s “charisma, celebrity and committed followers.” But Barr is famous enough, especially among the conservative talk-radio set, and his resume of red-meat Republicanism in the 1990s and harder-line libertarianism in recent years may help him put together an unlikely coalition of Ron Paul Republicans and Rush Limbaugh Republicans. The more of the latter group he brings in, the more he can serve as a Ralph Nader of the right than a Buchanan.
Some of this depends on how much Barr wants to risk being seen as responsible for John McCain’s defeat. Buchanan really didn’t want to elect Al Gore — he ran for the Reform Party nomination partly on the premise that Gore was going to beat George W. Bush anyway — and usually campaigned that way. Many of his supporters didn’t want to elect Gore either, as evidenced by his steady drop in the polls as the Bush-Gore race tightened. Barr’s success will also depend on his ability to win the Libertarian nomination without taking positions on issues like immigration that repel anti-McCain conservatives. Most of all, however, it depends on his ability to win the Libertarian nomination, period.
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