Although the impact of the Libertarian Party in presidential elections has been muted since first appearing on the ballot in 1972, the expectations for the Party are high in 2008.
This election cycle, the LP has nominated its most high profile candidate to date – former Georgia Republican Representative Bob Barr. Barr is also the Party’s most controversial figure: Democrats remember him (not so fondly) from his days as one of the outspoken House managers in the impeachment trial of President Clinton. The Republican Party resents him, naturally, for leaving the GOP. And the Libertarian Party establishment did not embrace him warmly – what with Barr announcing his candidacy just a few weeks before the Party’s National Convention (it also took Barr six ballots to earn a majority of the vote to secure the nomination).
Despite this backdrop, the political environment is ripe for Barr to make waves in the 2008 election. Libertarians, especially in the West have already played King Maker in statewide U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial races in recent years. Votes for Libertarian candidates have propelled Democrats to victory in 10 high-profile races since 1998 (with votes for the Libertarian exceeding the Democrat’s margin of victory over the Republican nominee):
1998 Nevada U.S. Senate race
2000 Michigan U.S. Senate race
2000 Washington U.S. Senate race
2002 South Dakota U.S. Senate race
2002 Arizona Gubernatorial race
2002 Oregon Gubernatorial race
2002 Wisconsin Gubernatorial race
2002 Wyoming Gubernatorial race
2004 Washington Gubernatorial race
2006 Montana U.S. Senate race
In the nine presidential elections since 1972, Libertarians have received 1 percent of the vote just once (1980) and a half of one percent of the vote on only one other occasion (1996).
1972 = 0.0%
1976 = 0.21%
1980 = 1.06%
1984 = 0.25%
1988 = 0.47%
1992 = 0.28%
1996 = 0.50%
2000 = 0.36%
2004 = 0.32%
Libertarians have been very successful, however, in getting on the ballot in most states. The Party has achieved ballot access in at least 46 states in every year since 1980, with the exception of 1984 (36 states). In 2008, Libertarians have already received ballot access in 30 states, with more to come.
In a little known fact about the controversial 2000 election, the Florida outcome only came into play because Libertarian nominee Harry Browne had already tipped the state of New Mexico to Al Gore. Gore defeated George W. Bush by just 366 votes, while Browne pulled 2,058 votes away from its closer ideological cousin, the GOP.
In 2008, Libertarian nominee Barr has already made noise by polling at 4 percent or more in three surveys in his home state of Georgia, tightening that reliably deep red state. But Barr’s impact is most likely going to be felt out West, in states like South Dakota, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Alaska. John McCain and Barack Obama are both polling quite competitively in these states – most of which have a history of supporting third parties.
Although traditional Libertarian supporters may not be full of enthusiasm for their nominee, some Republicans (e.g. the Ron Paul wing) are disgruntled enough with the GOP to lend significant support to Barr. Barr’s campaign platform advocates the cutting of corporate welfare, cutting taxes (including eliminating the income tax), adopting a policy of non-intervention for foreign affairs, and championing individual rights (though the abortion issue remains tricky for the former Congressman).
In recent years, successful third party campaigns (e.g. Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000) have been an outgrowth of dissatisfaction with the ruling party in the White House (Perot drawing support from economic conservatives unhappy with George H.W. Bush’s performance and Nader drawing support from environmentalists and consumer advocates dissatisfied with the Clinton/Gore administration). Barr therefore hopes to recruit supporters among traditional Republicans who are disgruntled with both the economic and foreign policies of President George W. Bush.
Barr, like many third party candidates, faces financial hurdles to get his message out. But even if Barr receives just 1 or 2 percent of the vote, he could tip key states in favor of Obama to assure a Democratic victory in 2008.