Time for a Bob Barr Reality Check

I’m noticing a pattern here: Some outfit conducts a poll, throws Bob Barr’s name into the mix, and reports back that the former Georgia congressman and current Libertarian presidential nominee is scoring somewhere in the mid-single-digits. Then, a bunch of news outlets run the same basic story about how Barr is poised to play the spoiler this year. Here are three such stories just from the past few days. Believe me, there are – and will be – plenty of others.

Maybe we need some perspective here.

Yes, it is theoretically possible that this election will come down to a handful of votes in one state, in which case the support that Barr receives – or that any other third-party candidate receives, for that matter – could theoretically swing the election. But it is highly, highly unlikely that Barr will be a consequential player this fall for numerous reasons.

First, his poll numbers are wildly inflated right now. A Zogby survey out today has Barr grabbing 6 percent nationally. Other recent polls show him in that same ball park. (Just as some polls have found Ralph Nader also running at or near 5 percent nationally.) Most of this is a result simply of pollsters including Barr’s name (and Nader’s for that matter) in their surveys, and thus providing an outlet for respondents who for whatever reason aren’t ready to say they’re for Barack Obama or John McCain. Few, if any, respondents are actually volunteering Barr’s name, because few (if any) know it.

To actually score 6 percent, or anything close to it, on Election Day is nothing short of a monumental achievement for any third-party candidate. Invariably, most soft third-party supporters decide they don’t want to “waste” their vote once they enter the voting booth. Just consider the electoral history of the Libertarian Party since it first nominated a national ticket in 1972 (note that the party did not attain 50-state ballot access until 1980):

1972: 0.00% (3,674 votes nationally)

1976: 0.2%

1980: 1.1%

1984: 0.3%

1988: 0.47%

1992: 0.28%

1996: 0.5%

2000: 0.36%

2004: .32%

Ah, you say, but this time will be different for the Libertarians because Barr is a much more widely known nominee.

But actually, we’ve been down this road before. Back in ’88, the party also nominated a former congressman – Ron Paul, whose name you may be familiar with. Paul had served eight years in Congress before leaving in 1984, just as Barr represented Georgia for eight years before leaving (well, actually he was forced out by redistricting and the voters) in 2002. Paul’s ’88 national profile was actually quite similar to Barr’s now.

Moreover, we heard the same neat theories in ’88 about Paul’s potential spoiler role: Conservative Republicans, upset by Vice President George H. W. Bush’s unconvincing efforts to distance himself from his supply-side skepticism and other flagrant apostasies, would migrate in surprising numbers to Paul’s camp. Here’s how The New York Times wrote of the Paul threat to Bush Sr. in August 1988:

There are also signs of more general conservative disaffection for Mr. Bush. Howard Phillips, head of the Washington-based Conservative Caucus, and Richard Viguerie, a major fund-raiser for conservative causes and candidates, met with Mr. Paul yesterday in Washington.

Mr. Phillips said in a telephone interview yesterday that while neither he nor Mr. Viguerie endorsed Mr. Paul, they encouraged his running to dramatize conservative economic issues. Mr. Phillips said he would act as an adviser to Mr. Paul but remain a Bush supporter.

And then there was this: Supporters of Pat Robertson, who had fared far better than expected against Bush in the G.O.P. primaries, began mounting a campaign on Paul’s behalf. The Robertson forces specifically targeted Michigan, a state with a sizable evangelical population (particularly in its western half) and where Robertson had done particularly well against Bush. The chairman of the Michigan Conservative Union (and the state chair of the ’80 and ’84 Reagan campaign in the state) endorsed Paul and issued the following warning: “Bush won’t carry Michigan without conservative support. From what I can see right now, he’s going to have a hard time getting it."

But Bush carried Michigan easily – by eight points and almost 300,000 votes. Paul didn’t even register, in Michigan or nationally. He finished with less than a half of a percent of the national popular vote.

Today, we’re hearing the very same grumblings from the same conservative voices about McCain – and the same talk of a potentially ascendant Libertarian alternative.

There are other reasons to dismiss Barr. For one, as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com noted recently, he is hardly on pace to make any noise on the fund-raising front. This is significant because the only credible Libertarian showing in a national election came in 1980, when the party was able to air a series of five-minute spots in prime time on national network television. How could they do this? Because Ed Clark tapped David Koch, one of the wealthiest men in the country, to be his running mate – and Koch spent generously on behalf of the ticket and the party.

There is really no reason to believe that Barr will do any better than any previous Libertarian candidate, which means he’ll probably get around one-half percent or so of the vote. Typically, Libertarians run strongest in Western states – their all-time-best mark was 12 percent in Alaska in ’80 – so in theory, his presence on the ballot could sway a potentially competitive state like Montana or Alaska. But if Obama is within a few points of winning either of those states come November, then he’ll almost certainly be in position to score a sweeping electoral college rout, no matter what effect Barr has.

Yes, Bob Barr could affect this election. So could any of the numerous other third-party candidates on various state ballots this year. We don’t hear much about them, and we really don’t need to hear too much more about Barr.