Campaigns/Elections

High Apple Pie In the Sky Hopes

On the scene at Badnarik's hometown election night celebration

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At the height of the celebration at the Austin hometown election night party for Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik—after the campaign manager and the candidate and the communications director had thanked the supporters, and each other, for all their hard work and dedication—campaign manager Fred Collins made an announcement that stunned me. According to extrapolations from the early returns, Badnarik would be pulling in around one million votes—nearly triple the presidential vote return for Harry Browne in 2000, and an all-time record for the LP.

That positive spin turned out, alas, to be not true in the end. As of this writing, Badnarik's looking at a total of 377,940—in fourth place behind Nader (but only by 17 thousand votes, despite far less media coverage) but beating the next two "third parties" (the Green and Constitution parties) combined.

Unlike what one might have found at parties of Kerry supporters last night, who had a sincere hope for victory, the mood was surprisingly festive and upbeat at the Legends Sports Bar in a Holiday Inn hugging one of Austin's endless, maddening freeway access roads. Young and old, 60-hour-a-week campaign worker, donor, or simply local fan or interested spectator, the partying and conversation was generally optimistic with a sense of a worthwhile battle well fought behind them. Most seemed genuinely unconcerned about who was actually winning. Campaign communications director Stephen Gordon is quite confident that Badnarik's TV ad strategy and targeting of swing states caused the Bush campaign to spend over a hundred thousand in ads it otherwise would not have had to. (It didn't seem to give Badnarik particularly high vote percentages in any of those swing states, including New Mexico and Arizona, though.)

The TVs were on in the bar, showing the endless shifting projections and guesses and hideous images of Bush and Kerry's mugs. But you couldn't hear them, and most of the revelers avoided wandering from the bar to the war room only yards away (but through two more sets of doors) where a circle of Badnarikophiles kept refreshing their laptops as they scanned state Secretary of State Web sites, shouting new percentages polled and vote count totals every few minutes to the young women who wiped the dry-erase board and markered in the freshest numbers. (On another board next to the one with the running totals, some wag had scrawled three categories: "giant douche" "turd sandwich" and "Badnarik.")

In this room, the optimism that Collins sent home with most of the crowd (easily 300 strong when the announcement was made, it had dwindled to less than a third of that by the time I left, around 12:30 a.m.) began to disintegrate. Within a half-hour of that million-vote guess, a fresh guess of 700,000 was floated. Within another half hour, it was downgraded to 480,000.

Badnarik himself didn't seem concerned; I never saw him enter this war room once, even as Collins marched in every 10 minutes or so to mock-bellow "Talk to me!" at his crew and collect the latest stats. Badnarik talked with ardent fans in the hall, occasionally with a fierce passion I hadn't seen from him at the convention where he won the nomination in a surprise upset. He was prepared to die for liberty, so why would he worry about simple things like being arrested?, he said. He posed for pictures, signed copies of his new book It's Good to Be King, summing up his freelance course in constitutional law. No electronic media, or other print media, surrounded him. He was—again, and still—a guy talking about libertarian principles as he understood them, and their application to America, to a small group of people who cared passionately. He was tired—very tired—but not defeated. He had gotten to do what he loved to an audience larger than he could have imagined without the platform of the LP. Despite being hounded by accusations of kookdom over his stances on the legality of the income tax and drivers licenses (he doesn't think either are legally necessary), despite this being an even more highly contentious and omen-filled election among the two-partiers than 2000, despite spending only around a million (according to his staff last night—the last official report says only $749,248) to Browne's $2.2 million in 2000, Badnarik got almost identical vote totals (376,123 for Browne in 2000). showing that he certainly ran a leaner, more efficient campaign for the LP.

As one Texas LPer (who spoke in the early flush of confidence that the total would be around a million) told me, all the naysayers who thought the LP conventioneers did the wrong thing by nominating Badnarik should be publicly eating their words. I had been predicting within 10 percent of 300,000, so I too underestimated Badnarik's pull (even as his partisans overestimated it, to the very end).

When assessing the reason for the result, Thomas Knapp, who worked with the campaign, was amazed at Badnarik's energy for retail politics and travel. He sometimes visited four states in a day, without a private plane, doing talk radio while in transit—stopping only, Knapp notes, for the brief time he spent in jail after being arrested for trying to enter the second presidential debate to serve papers in a suit challenging his being excluded from them.

What could do better for the LP? Hell if I know, right now. (Gordon laments the mainstream electronic media's continued stonewalling of his man.) But it is doubtless the enthusiastic optimism that had his people confident of a result almost triple what he actually got, even at the end, that keeps it going at all—and will doubtless keep it going.