The polls have closed in the East and John McCain is winning the presidency. Florida goes red. Ohio goes red. Iowa flips to Barack Obama, but McCain needs only to lock up 16 electoral votes for victory.
And then things start going pear-shaped. McCain is down by 10,000 votes in New Hampshire with only 5,000 left to be counted—the Libertarians scored 15,000—and the networks call it for Obama. Those sparse Republican New Mexico counties start rolling in, and McCain is falling short of those Bush 2004 margins as the Libertarians rack up 2 percent, 3 percent, 5 percent vote totals. Obama wins the state. It's the same story in Nevada, and McCain can't quite make up the Obama margin out of Las Vegas. The pattern becomes clear as the sun comes up on Wednesday: Just enough Republicans have ditched their party to hand the election over to the Democrats.
When former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) announced he was exploring a run for the Libertarian Party's presidential nomination, Republicans who'd sent "thank you" cards to Ralph Nader experienced their first flashes of this nightmare. "Sure, it will hurt," said South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson. "We'll just have to see how much." Republicans haven't forgotten how John McCain won his nomination over a splintered and pathetic field, and how the talk radio right's failure to settle on an anti-McCain gave them a candidate who more than a quarter of the base still refuses to vote for.
Of course, the LP hasn't ever actually swung a presidential election, and right-wing worries that they would in 2004 proved to be overheated. "I'm an LP person," says Libertarian Party chairman Bill Redpath. "Election night is my least favorite night of the year." Yet even Redpath thinks the ground has shifted since 2004. "I don't see how libertarians could vote for John McCain, and I see lot of conservatives who simply won't."
Throughout 2007, the LP watched Ron Paul vaccuum up libertarian money and siphon energy from the low-key field. Gambling guru Wayne Allyn Root, a former Republican, entered the race claiming that he had name recognition no candidate could beat. At the time, he was right. Physics professor George Phillies, a frequent local candidate in Massachusetts and national organizer for the 2004 Michael Badnarik campaign, claimed that he had more electoral experience than anyone else in the race. That was right, too. Party leaders, nervous about the strength of their field, offered the nomination to Ron Paul if he wanted it, a divisive decision lambasted by the candidates in the ring and by the more radical elements of the party. But when Paul spoke at the Free State Project's Liberty Forum, days before the New Hampshire primary, he drew a crowd that dwarfed the turnout for an LP candidates' debate.
As Paul's surprising bid for the GOP nomination winds down, it's clear that it was a boon for the LP after all. Paul's fundraising and gadfly debate performances got national pundits talking about the libertarian vote. "I'm amazed at how often I hear that word in the mainstream media now," says 2004 LP nominee Michael Badnarik. "Four years ago it was a curse word." Paul indirectly drew three high-profile candidates into the race. Bob Barr, an LP leader since 2006, introduced Paul at the Conservative Political Action Conference with a rousing speech that ramped up the movement to draft him. Mary Ruwart, a left-libertarian author as renowned in LP circles as she is obscure outside of them, re-engaged in electoral politics to support Paul, then jumped into the race as Paul withdrew. Mike Gravel, the biggest-name convert to the party since, well, Barr, made the leap in part because Paul was so successful at raising money.
The result of all this manuevering is a wild, unpredictable, and possibly disastrous battle for the LP nod. Every faction of the party is represented in the race, and the 702 delegates and 146 alternates slated to go to the national nominating convention over Memorial Day weekend are up for grabs. They will vote until one candidate scores an absolute majority. Here is a current, rough ranking of the highly fluid race, based on conversations with multiple delegates and campaigns.
The drive-by media view of the LP race—that Barr is all but certain to win—isn't quite wrong. If the delegates convened today, Bob Barr would win most of their votes. But he would not win a majority. While Barr’s entry into the race was greeted with a rush of support, his allies count on a bit less than 30 percent support on the first ballot.
A first-ballot victory isn't much of a prize in the LP. In 2004, Aaron Russo won the first round of balloting, only to watch third-place finisher Gary Nolan endorse Michael Badnarik for the win. Russo, like Barr, faced an intractable bloc of delegates who considered him heretical. The comparison doesn't go far, however, as Barr has spent two years in party leadership and carefully apologized for the stances that offend Libertarians most, like his pro-drug war votes and his initial support of the PATRIOT Act.
It's good enough for a lot of Libertarians, who are desparate for a candidate who can capture some of the Ron Paul mojo and avoid the fringey appearence of the Badnarik campaign. "We need to get back to basics," said Alabama delegate Dr. Jimmy Blake, "rather than discussing mineral rights on Mars and all of that crap." Washington, D.C. delegate Rob Kampia—better known as the head of the Marijuana Policy Project—is planning on voting for Barr, a sign of how much he's been forgiven. The question is how willing Barr's opponents are to accept him, and whether the party risks a fight along the lines of the razor-thin Ron Paul–Russell Means race 20 years ago. "If you nominated a Barr," said a rival candidate, "you’d lose the entire, very large, neo-pagan and non-traditional religious people. You'd lose the entire gay and lesbian groups. It would be a very big problem."
Like Barr, Ruwart was pushed into the race by Libertarians who were unsatisfied by their choices. Like Barr, she didn’t need to be pushed very hard. Twenty-four years ago, Ruwart, then a scientific researcher and first-time LP delegate, threw her hat into the presidential nomination race and came in third. From there she mounted a series of unsuccessful (but often credible) bids for local offices, supplemented by reams and reams of freelance writing about nonaggression, philosophy, and left-libertarian ideas.
Ruwart's supporters see her as a singular spokesman for Libertarians, a likeable and eloquent activist who'll stay faithful to the party's message. Ruwart's opponents see her as a fringe candidate who'll do nothing to attract wayward conservatives. ”I don’t see us getting anywhere if Ruwart is the nominee,” said delegate Stewart Flood. [ed--This quote was originally misattributed to Aaron Starr.] “She’d be completely ignored by the media, or if she wasn’t ignored their view would be, ‘Boy, she’s got some strange ideas on things.’”
Proving this "strangeness" to delegates has proven tricky.
Ruwart's oeuvre has been parsed for controversial statements, and
from Short Answers to the Tough Questions made it sound as
if the candidate favored the legalization of child pornography. It
shook the campaign, and Ruwart
responded, days later, with a tough statement denouncing
"divisiveness" in the party. The pro-Ruwart and anti-Ruwart forces
saw exactly what they wanted to see. "Mary is family," said a
consultant for a rival campaign. "This isn't the Democrats or the
Republicans, who'll pile on each other. If you're expecting a
reaction against her from this, you're mistaken."
3. Wayne Allyn Root. Age: 47. Experience: sports handicapper, former sports talk show host, author of five books, including Millionaire Republican and The Joy of Failure!