Barr, the LP, and the New Yorker: Checking the Numbers


I was less impressed with the New Yorker piece on LP candidate Bob Barr than was David Weigel the other day. Sure, the very fact that a serious profile of an LP candidate is in such an augustly mainstream publication is a good sign for serious attention for the LP, I suppose.

The profile itself, though, managed to be so dull, and so unilluminating about libertarianism or the LP per se though barely successful in giving a pointillist picture-dabbed-through-small-details about Barr himself (it has one of those flat feature-writery finishes that the writer apparently wants the reader to find portentous in some manner but to me just screams "I don't really know what the point of this article is either, just let me sneak quietly out the back") that I don't think it will help even those who manage to finish it understand much they will care about about libertarianism or the LP.

For a more specific critique, the piece makes a huge leap, though, when it implicitly attributes a rise in paid membership to a change in the LP platform, the sort of thing that isn't really fact-checkable per se and something that almost no New Yorker reader will have any independent base of knowledge on which to judge. (It is also written in such a way that the author could deny even having meant to make that implication, though it's hard for me to imagine that most readers wouldn't read it that way):

In 2006, [LP founder David] Nolan told me, the Party had a "civil war" over its platform, most of which was subsequently dropped. The following year, the Party's dues-paying membership grew by twenty-eight per cent.

My equally un-fact-checkable opinion is that the platform and what it says or doesn't say is only of importance to a very small number of party activists whose self-identity is tied up with it, and for the occasional candidate whose opponents try to call him out on some outre element of it, though I don't think there's even a lot of evidence that happens often, mostly because major party candidates can generally completely ignore their LP opponents.

Still, to be sure, a post-platform reform, post-Barr LP has been on the grow in terms of dues-paying national members, according to the LP's official figures. From December 2007 to now, the party membership has grown by 1,656 members; that's nearly 11 percent.

But how impressive is this? In 2004, the year of unknown Michael Badnarik as their candidate, with a Party burdened with that crazy-radical old platform, the party grew from December 2003 to December 2004 by 2,814 in whole numbers, and by 14 percent, from a much higher base.

For whatever reason, the Party's biggest membership plunge of the past few years happened over the course of 2006, the year which, in July, the Party's platform was shaved in the manner that the New Yorker implicitly credits with the 2007 membership rise. The LP gained 3,313 members in 2007–again, in judging how well the "nominating the successful politician" strategy has done for the LP's prominence so far, note that that is more than twice the number of new members that nominating Barr has earned the LP so far. Yes, the year isn't over yet, and the election hasn't happened yet. But, non-disdainful mainstream media attention or not, I'm not impressed with what Barr has done for the LP so far.

UPDATE: In private correspondence, Shane Cory from the Barr campaign says I'm being misleading about Barr's effect on membership growth by using net numbers rather than gross. With a month-by-month breakdown more specific than the ones the LP national HQ provided me with, he shows that since May (when Barr got the nomination) that new members joining the LP have amounted to at least 3,403.

True. But for every month since May, lapsed members have outnumbered both new members and renewed members–but not the two put together, of course, or there would have been no total growth at all.

I noted in the original post that from December 07 to now, LP membership grew 1,656. With more specific growth figures from May on supplied by Cory, I see that membership since Barr got the nomination in fact grew by a little more than that–1,884. (There was a dip between December 07 and May 08.) While reasonable people can argue about this, I suppose, it seems to me net growth in membership is a far more important measure of Barr's effect on growing the party than merely new members joining. If Barr drew in 10,000 new and lost 13,000 old members, that would not be a positive sign for the LP's future.