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The Barr Campaign: What Went Wrong ?

by @ 5:32 pm on November 18, 2008. Filed under 2008 Election, Bob Barr, Libertarians, Politics

Reason’s Brian Doherty does a post-mortem on yet another disappointment Libertarian Party Presidential campaign:

From the outset, Bob Barr’s Libertarian run for the presidency was fraught with great expectations.

For many Libertarian Party members, the former Georgia congressman was a living hope, an actual experienced politician with a national reputation and real fundraising experience who could finally beat both fundraising and vote totals for the perennially beleaguered party in its 10th presidential campaign. It was the year of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), after all, and there was also a GOP candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was largely mistrusted by the small-government (and social conservative) right. Visions of $30 million spun in libertarian heads; expectations soared to include a million LP votes counted on election night.

It was a new dawn for the LP, former national executive director and Barr campaign higher-up Shane Cory told Atlanta magazine. The folks who had dominated the party in those long, lonely pre-Barr years, he said, “had changed it from a political party into a debating society. It was the church of Libertarianism. I’m not saying that in a condescending way. But we’re turning it around. This is a more pragmatic approach.”

Well, for an approach Cory frames as pragmatic, it didn’t really work. It’s all over now, and Barr failed as both fundraiser and candidate to even approach those high early expectations. The total money raised was $1.2 million; total votes came in at 510,000.

And so, it’s time for the quadrennial Libertarian blame game.

In Barr’s case, Doherty cites three factors that some are relying upon to explain why he didn’t do nearly as well as expected.

First, there’s the argument that Barr wasn’t libertarian enough:

From the beginning, he was attacked for being too federalist and not enough of a libertarian on matters such as the drug war and gay marriage, being insufficiently emphatic about non-interventionist foreign policy and getting out of Iraq, and too right-wing on matters like border security. Many in the LP distrusted him as a carpetbagger from the beginning, and little about the way he conducted his campaign calmed down such detractors. Barr’s Leadership Fund PAC, for instance, gave money this go-round to many GOP candidates who were directly fighting LP ones.

He issued press releases with tender reminiscences of Jesse Helms, called for stronger border security, and offered a federalist defense of the Defense of Marriage Act—one of his legislative accomplishments—as the very heart and soul of libertarianism. His very last press release as a candidate, curiously, commended federal prosecutors for investigating financial firms.

The problem with this argument is that Barr received more votes than any previous Libertarian Party Presidential candidate since the 1980 election. A good part of the reason for that was because his status as a former Congressman, and specifically the guy who led the Clinton impeachment fight, gave him access to media coverage that no other Libertarian Party candidate would have been able to receive. I would bet that some significant portion of the people who voted for Bob Barr on November 4th did so because they saw coverage of him on television or on the Internet.

To blame the campaigns performance on the supposed fact that Barr wasn’t “libertarian enough,” whatever that means, would be to argue that doctrinaire libertarians represent a powerful voting bloc. That simply isn’t supported by the evidence.

So if it’s not too little adherence to libertarian orthodoxy, maybe it’s the fact that he pissed off Ron Paul:

” Ron Paul riled up an unprecedentedly large and energetic bunch of grassroots libertarian action in late 2007 and early 2008. He failed to win the GOP presidential nomination he sought, and disappointed his followers and many within the LP by not seeking its nomination, or making any kind of independent presidential run. Where would his fans and their energy go? Barr’s campaign wanted, and mostly thought it deserved, to inherit the crown—even to have it handed over to them.

Instead, after what some insiders credit to poor personal relations and bad attitudes on the part of some Paul staffers toward the LP and some Barr staffers toward Paul, and partially to a bruised ego on Barr’s part, the campaign chose to alienate Paul by refusing at the last minute to show up to an all-third-party press conference Paul threw back in September. As a result, as I was told by LP grandees from across the nation, the Barr campaign had a hard time tapping into all that leftover Paul partisan energy.

As I noted at the time, Paul’s four-party press conference back in September was pretty much a waste of time and, although it was clearly badly mishandled, I don’t fault Barr for deciding not to attend. Standing up on a stage and saying there’s no difference between a vote for Bob Barr and a vote for Cynthia McKinney isn’t leadership, it’s a craven plea for attention. When Paul came out two weeks later and endorsed theocrat Chuck Baldwin for President, it was fairly clear that Barr had made the right decision.

In any case it’s fairly clear that Barr didn’t hurt himself all that much by distancing himself from the remants of the r3volution. In the end, he ended up getting nearly 5 times as many votes as Baldwin. Baldwin, meanwhile, got only 40,000 more votes than the Constitution Party’s 2004 candidate, so it’s clear that the Paul endorsement really didn’t help him all that much and didn’t hurt Barr either.

Finally, Doherty looks at the argument that Barr’s campaign was badly run:

Some critics just think Barr didn’t do enough, efficiently enough, and with enough intra-LP cooperation. Whatever it would have taken to get those tens of millions of dollars, or that million votes, it didn’t happen. But what would have? No one knows.

Free media was, as noted, about as good as could be hoped for given a campaign that was not making news in any real sense. Participation in the presidential debates were the key, campaign official Steve Gordon thinks, and he said he knew as soon as that didn’t happen that early happy predictions of big vote totals were no longer operative. (For his part, Barr mostly refused to participate in third party debates, doing only one, the week before the election.)

Now, to be fair, there was never any realistic chance that Barr would be included in the debates unless he was able to poll somewhere in the 15% range. The Republican and Democratic Parties, through the Commission on Presidential Debates, have a stranglehold on the Presidential debate process, something which is perfectly permissible under the law (which is why filing lawsuits to get Barr into the debate would have been a waste of time). And the third-party debates received no media coverage and were most likely only watched by people already supporting one of the candidates.

It’s not the fault of Barr’s campaign that he wasn’t included in the debates.

Where the campaign did seem to fall apart, though, is in fundraising:

Verney told me they found that personal fundraising appearances weren’t paying off; and neither were a lot of their efforts in direct mail. Ultimately, “we found most of the lists we tested showed that they would require persuasion; they wouldn’t be money makers and we didn’t have money to invest in prospecting. We eventually settled almost exclusively on contributors or people who had contacted the campaign and LP lists and some conservative lists, specific issue lists of causes Bob had been involved with previously.”

Gordon, who was in charge of e-promotion for the campaign, said they had a list of over 30,000 emails to promote appearances and fundraise from. He also did what he could to keep interest alive in Web 2.0 media like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Meetup. But Barr never took off there the way Ron Paul did.

But, did Barr do any worse than any previous LP Presidential candidate ? I don’t think he did.

This much is clear, the Libertarian Party seems out of ideas.

The Barr campaign was supposed to be the breakthrough. A nationally recognized politician who could get the party mainstream access it hadn’t really had before. Well, they got the access, but, as Doherty notes, it really didn’t work out as planned:

Barr’s failures prove that merely bringing in a serious politician, with past successes and no stress on the more eccentric aspects of libertarianism (Barr loved to call libertarianism an American “mainstream” idea and the LP a “mainstream” party), was not the way to bring the LP to any kind of national next level, even in a year when small government devotees really had nowhere else viable to turn. Which means the libertarian movement, and the Libertarian Party, are out of quick fixes, and still face the long, slow, possibly eternal work of changing minds in a libertarian direction, one citizen or voter at a time.

And it makes you wonder what the point of the Libertarian Party really is.

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