Steve Kornacki has a column in the New York Observer arguing that Bob Barr’s national poll numbers are “wildly inflated right now” and that there “is really no reason to believe that Barr will do any better than any previous Libertarian candidate.” Maybe. As I’ve said before, third-party challenges from the right have fizzled in recent years so it’s not unreasonable to bet against Barr. And with Ralph Nader currently polling better than he actually ran in 2000, much less 2004, it’s possible that his current poll numbers are inflated.
Nevertheless, Kornacki’s case really isn’t as airtight as he seems to think. For one, he points out that Ron Paul didn’t effect the outcome of the 1988 presidential race, even though he was a former Republican congressman and there was conservative discontent with George H.W. Bush. But Paul wasn’t anywhere near as big a national figure in 1988 as he became after his 2008 presidential campaign. Paul always enjoyed a national cult following but in the pre-Internet era he wasn’t anymore famous across the country than Harry Browne.
Second, the political environment was very different twenty years ago. While there was always conservative discontent with Bush, conservatives simply felt better about the Republican Party after eight years of Ronald Reagan than they do now. Conservatives didn’t even try that hard to beat Bush in the Republican primaries. One of the examples Kornacki cites as evidence actually bolsters my point: In 1988, even Howard Phillips wasn’t publicly endorsing Paul and was instead telling the New York Times that he backed Bush. Phillips tried to run to the right of Pat Buchanan in the 2000 presidential election!
Buchanan actually would have been a better example for Kornacki than Paul. When Buchanan bolted the GOP for the Reform Party in the fall of 1999, he was getting a John Anderson-sized share of the vote in national polls. He had run second in the 1996 Republican primaries, taking more than 3 million votes. He was among the best known conservatives in the country. On election day, he got a little over 0.4 percent of the vote — barely beating the Libertarian nominee for fourth place and receiving a lower percentage of the popular vote than did Paul in 1988. Part of this was due to the closeness of the Bush-Gore race. So far, polls show McCain-Obama to be close too.
Yet even here there are differences. Barr is running in a much more favorable issue environment than Buchanan. Barr had to slog through six ballots to win the Libertarian nomination, but Buchanan had to battle a rump faction of the Reform Party in dueling conventions and in court. And finally, John McCain is not the George W. Bush of 2000.
Maybe Barr’s actual numbers will be much lower than what the national polls suggest. But I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that he does better than the Brownes and Badnariks. Even if he isn’t a Ralph Nader, he could be 2008’s John Schmitz. Schmitz, a more obscure Republican congressman than either Barr or Paul, didn’t effect the outcome of the 1972 presidential election but he still got 1 million votes.