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Barr was good on privacy and wiretapping, favorite issues of his, and when soundbiting it, he’d correctly define libertarianism as maximizing freedom and minimizing government power.
But he didn’t tend to be particularly thoughtful and exciting when fleshing out what that principle might mean for Americans of different interests—from education to drugs to sexual freedom to trade to immigration. Campaign manager Russ Verney told me they deliberately decided the election would be won and lost on economic issues and wanted to stick to them. As New York state LP chair Eric Sundwall told me—in a complaint that captures the feelings of lots of LPers—this meant that for his taste, Barr “was uninspiring, he was unimaginative, he was no fun.”
Additionally, a big complaint from local and state LP activists who figure that, since victory is never an option, party growth and branding has to be what it’s all about, was that lots of the campaign literature and early material didn’t flag the “Libertarian Party” at all. Verney stood by that decision: “The one name we had to embed in people's minds was Barr; we didn’t want anyone thinking of anything but Barr. The initial phase of a campaign is always to introduce the candidate and the Barr name was the only name we wanted to keep repeating.”
2. He muffed the “Ron Paul transition.” 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.
Verney told me last week that he still stands by that decision. For Ron Paul to essentially say “I endorse four people for president and if you don’t wanna vote at all, I endorse that too—that wasn’t leadership for liberty, and I saw no need to recommend that Bob Barr be involved in it.”
Paul, as it turned out, did eventually endorse the Constitution Party’s religious conservative Chuck Baldwin. Barr still beat Baldwin silly. And Barr’s vote total plus Baldwin’s still fell far short of a million. Whatever the Paul Revolution will mean to the future of American politics, it was not to mean much to the presidential election this year.
3. Campaign or Shampaign? 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.)
But you don’t get in the debates without polling 15 percent. And you don’t poll 15 percent without more money and media. However, you don’t get the money until you are getting enough free media exposure of the sort that being in the debates would lead to.
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.
Local LPers from New York to Iowa to North Carolina to Tennessee complained to me about lack of communication and coordination from the Barr campaign, particularly annoyed by its decision to charge, in most cases, local volunteers for campaign materials—as if the campaign was in the business of selling brochures and signs rather than trying to win votes. Perhaps as a result, many statewide LP candidates beat Barr in votes, showing some verifiable sign of the Barr alienation effect on otherwise reliable LP voters.
As Tennessee Senate candidate Daniel Lewis told me, after complaining that Barr never showed up in his state despite being based in nearby Atlanta, Lewis spent just $500 on his Senate race and outpolled Barr in the state. In North Carolina, hotshot gubernatorial candidate Michael Munger received nearly five times as many votes in the state as Barr did.
Barr campaign field coordinator Mike Ferguson said they chose to concentrate on certain potential swing states, to maximize the chances that Barr’s results, if they beat the spread between the major party candidates (which did happen in Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina), would generate media juice about the campaign’s importance. Ferguson grants that they could probably have juiced the national vote total more by putting more time and effort into, say, Texas or California. Instead, he tells me, they made states such as Ohio (0.4 percent, less than a third of the vote total an LP federal House candidate from the state got), Georgia (0.7 percent, and less than a fourth the votes a Senate candidate from Georgia earned), and Colorado (0.5 percent, and less votes than an LP House candidate from the state copped) among their top priorities.