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.
1. Bob Barr. Age: 59. Experience: U.S. Attorney 1986-1990, U.S. Congressman from Georgia 1995-2003, author of The Meaning of Is.
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."
2. Mary Ruwart. Age: 59. Experience: Candidate for multiple local offices, author of Healing Our World in an Age of Aggression and other books.
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 a doozy 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."
Back in the long-ago, snow-swept days of February, Root was building a winning coalition with two groups of voters: right-leaning Libertarians and delegates who wanted a media-savvy nominee. They were willing to forgive Root's heresies, such as his big-dollar donations to Republican candidates (and Joe Lieberman) and a shifting position on the Iraq War. Barr's entry into the race has changed that and bled some support from Root, with some of his supporters jumping ship entirely and some suggesting he'd merely make a good running mate. "He'd be a better candidate in four years if he got some seasoning under Bob Barr," one delegate said.
Root, a savvy and quick-witted speaker, hasn't adjusted too well to the new entries. One of his tongue-in-cheek slogans ("the WAR you can vote for") has occasionally cut against him, as he struggles to convince delegates that he's not an interventionist Republican in disguise. Some left-libertarians accuse him of playing dirty, calling on Mary Ruwart to leave the race after the "child sex" snippet of Short Answers spread through the blogosphere. Not all of them buy the argument that he'd be the most media-savvy candidate they could nominate, or that they'd even want him speaking for them. "The GOP launched a full court press to make sure Michael Badnarik was never on TV," rival candidate George Phillies said. "If you booked him, you wouldn't get access to the good Repubican guests. This direct access to the mainstream media that Root and Barr talk about will crash to a halt if either one gets the nomination."
4. Mike Gravel. Age: 77. Experience: Alaska state representative 1963-1967, U.S. Senator from Alaska 1969-1981, author of Citizen Power.
Libertarians are largely happy, if somewhat skeptical, about a Democratic also-ran's embrace of their party. "Other than the fact that he's drinking the liberal Kool Aid on health care, he sounds like a libertarian," said delegate Stewart Flood. [ed–This quote was originally misattributed to Aaron Starr.] Two delegates called him blunt, and only one of them meant it as a compliment.
None of this, nor Gravel's late entry in the race, have prevented him from gaining steam. He's won delegates over by talking to them one on one, pumping his omnipresent National Initiative, and arguing for his own brand of left-libertarianism that focuses on human rights first and governing principles second. "I am not a Constitutionalist," Gravel said last week. "I'm a classical liberal."
When he entered the race, Gravel seemed unlikely to win enough delegate support to even enter the candidate debates at the Denver convention. That's changed: There's chatter that Gravel will win a berth even if he doesn't get 30 tokens, due to the media attention he'd draw. "He'd make a great vice presidential nominee," one delegate said, for that reason. Unfortunately for that kind of delegate, Gravel has refused to consider the VP slot.
5. George Phillies. Age: 60. Experience: physics professor, 2004 Badnarik campaign organizer, editor of the newsetters Let Freedom Ring! and Libertarian Strategy Gazette, author of the e-book Stand Up for Liberty!
Before Barr and Gravel entered the race, George Phillies claimed he had the most electoral experience in the field. He's still saying that. "I have a working campaign organization," he says. "I'm in close contact with Libertarians all over the country. I'm the only candidate who's worked in a national Libertarian campaign on a Libertarian campaign budget. I have $100,000 in the bank, ready to go." But Phillies' support has remained low and steady while the newer candidates have hogged the spotlight. Nebbishy and nasal-voiced, trekking from event to event in his three-piece suit and prescription specs, Phillies has made himself credible. "He's improved a whole lot since I met him in 2004," said one delegate. "I'd like to see him run for party chairman."
That's the problem, though. It's easy to see Phillies in an organizing role, and considerably less easy to picture him holding the standard. "He doesn't project 'candidate,'" said delegate Stewart Flood. "He projects 'college professor.'" For all of that, he might be the least offensive candidate to the largest number of delegates. No one is better set up to profit from a melee on the floor.
6. Steve Kubby. Age: 61. Experience: co-drafter of California's Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996, candidate for governor of California in 1998, author of The Politics of Consciousness and Why Marijuana Should Be Legal.
Kubby offers Libertarians much the same deal that Eugene Debs offered the vintage Socialists: real movement cred, battle scars from his fights with the state, and a crippling inability to campaign. Shortly after the 1998 gubernatorial election, Kubby's home was raided and his bountiful marijuana garden was seized. A legal battle ensued that took him to Canada (for five years), to prison, and finally back to the West Coast, where his movement is limited. A candidate who nearly won the party's vice presidential nomination in 2000 has been almost invisible on the trail, appearing at conventions via amateurish into-the-camera videos. "He's not as clear-headed as he could be," one delegate said regretfully. Kubby has a good reason for that: adrenal cancer, the condition that turned him into a medical marijuana activist in the first place.
Kubby has tried to turn all of this to his advantage, with a little success. "I've gone to jail for freedom," he brags in one of his campaign videos. "I've gone to Canada for freedom. I've nearly died for freedom!" After Ruwart, he might be the best-liked candidate in the field, but concerns about his campaigning skills and his myopic focus on marijuana are keeping him out of the top tier. His second-place performance in his home state's (non-binding, low-turnout) presidential primary convinced some delegates that he's lost the notoreity that he had eight years ago.
7. Christine Smith. Age: 41. Experience: author of A Mountain in the Wind: An Exploration of the Spirituality of John Denver.
"I'm the leading candidate by all the ways that we can measure it," Christine Smith claimed in a March radio interview. If that was ever true, it stopped being true when Mary Ruwart entered the race. But Smith is the most pugnacious representative of the libertarian left still in the running. "I believe the LP still has great potential in a nation whose people are disillusioned and disgusted with politics as usual," Smith writes in one of her campaign statements. "But that potential is destroyed if our party's 'leadership' continues to be weakened by people with major non-libertarian stances, ulterior motives, agendas and actions."
What's not clear is why Christine Smith is the candidate who can "save" the LP. "She hasn't been in the party that long," said Starchild, a California delegate. "I'd like to see her campaign for a lower office first." Other delegates are less forgiving, pointing out that for all her of her rhetoric about the LP, she offered to bolt the party if Ron Paul got the GOP nod and needed a running mate.
Smith's assertiveness cuts both ways. Several delegates told me they've been won over by her tough speeches, debate performances, or radio hits, or that a female nominee would be good for the party. But unless Mary Ruwart left the race, there aren't enough of these delegates to nominate Smith.
8. Michael Jingozian. Age: 46. Experience: founder of AngelVision Technologies.
A self-proclaimed "new age libertarian" whose 5-year plan assumes that he'll lose this election and win in 2012, Jingozian has funded a full-time staff and a busy travel schedule mostly through personal loans. He's become a presence in the race, but not one that the majority of likely delegates take seriously. "I clearly got the impression he's not lucid very often," one delegate said. "He didn't seem…with it."
One reason he turns off some delegates: Even though he's been a party member for years, Jingozian emphasizes the rottenness of the two-party system over the strengths of libertarianism. He's spoken at Green Party events to build cross-ideological support for his "Reset America" plan. He's waffled on policy questions in an attempt to seem more mainstream, telling one radio interviewer that the U.S. can't leave Iraq right away and a withdrawal would take six to nine months, sentiments utterly at odds with most LP voters.
9. The others. There is absolutely zero chance that John Finan, Barry Hess, Dave Hollist, Daniel Imperato, Alden Link, or Robert Milnes will get the Libertarian Party's nomination. They are occasionally entertaining, and they are harmless. Imperato, in particular, has run a campaign worthy of Max Headroom, bidding (with no success) for the Constitution and Green Party nominations, claiming to run a multi-billion-dollar international organization, to speak seven languages, and to be descended from Emperor Nero. (If that actually was true, why would anyone admit it?) "He is the most ridiculous candidate I have ever seen," says Starchild.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.