Georgia on Their Minds
The final hours of Bob Barr's presidential campaign
The call sheet is short and perfunctory, and everyone who uses it puts a slightly different spin on it. "I'm calling to ask you for your vote for former congressman and presidential candidate Bob Barr," goes one version. "Bob Barr opposed the McCain-Obama bailout and McCain-Feingold. According to the National Taxpayers Union, only Bob Barr will cut taxes and reduce federal spending."
Sometimes the call includes verbiage about the Second Amendment. Often, the person on the other end has something better to do.
"He already voted six weeks ago!" says Austin Petersen, a Libertarian Party worker who's been camped out in Atlanta for the Barr campaign. "Where do they hide all these votes before the election, anyway? Are they in a box somewhere? Where's the box?"
Mikael Sandstrom, an LP intern who's shadowing Peterson, has to do battle with a voter fretting that his vote for Barr could help elect Barack Obama. "No," says Sandstrom, in a more lilting, Southern tone than his usual voice, "it would be a vote for Bob Barr." Earlier today, a voter called the office and begged Barr to endorse John McCain. She was told that Barr was endorsing Barr. She wasn't satisfied.
Welcome to the final 48 hours of the Bob Barr presidential campaign. After winning the Libertarian Party nomination in May, Barr opened this office in the sprawling suburb of Smyrna, Georgia, with a view of Atlanta when you step outside for a smoke—something his staffers do every hour or so.
The office is as wide and rambling as the real estate developments that define metropolitan Georgia. A dozen people are at work, but there are almost twice as many full-stocked cubicles than staff. Typically they service the volunteers who come in on weekends to find more voters, but on the day before the election there is the hardcore staff and no one else. A flat screen TV is tuned to cable political coverage. A computer is tuned to Barr TV, which runs videos of the candidate all day long. Two Mr. Coffees churn in a small break room aside a heaving pile of lawn signs, pieces of mail, fliers, and gel bands that twist cyclist Lance Armstrong's "Livestrong" message into "Live Free."
"This is a real campaign," says Stewart Flood, a South Carolina Libertarian Party executive who has taken a three-week unpaid vacation to help out. "There was no headquarters in 2004. It was Michael Badnarik in a car, driving from event to event. They did raise money, but they weren't raising money. They did contact voters, but it wasn't organized."
In one of the most crowded cubicles, Barr communications director Shane Cory has a map of the country divided into seven sections. The states where Barr failed to make the ballot are blacked out. ("Louisiana screwed us," Cory recalls grimly. "We should have gotten on in Connecticut, and we would have, if the lawsuit was filed earlier.") Seven more states have been assigned numbers that indicate where the campaign is placing resources, which mostly consist of the candidate himself doing media and making speeches. Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida—all swing states—are marked out.
As the campaign wound to a close, it was clear that Barr wouldn't get close to the $30 million fundraising goal campaign manager Russ Verney set in May, a disappointment that staffers blame in part on former Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). "Paul set the liberty movement back a decade by encouraging people to stay in the GOP," Cory says. "Not that the Republicans planned it, but if they did they couldn't have planned it any better."
Focus in Barr's Atlanta headquarters has turned heavily toward his native state. "Georgia just came onto the map when the polls closed between McCain and Obama," says Cory. "The rest of the states are being turned out by local people," says Verney. "That work has been decentralized."
The candidate spent the last day of the campaign on a small plane to Savannah for a last round of local media interviews. The other day it was Macon. Months ago the campaign purchased data from Barr's old congressional district in the wealthy Republican suburbs, and the office has been pushing those voters with help from phone-bankers on the west coast. According to state party chair Daniel Adams, the candidate is pulling around 5 percent of Republicans in his old district.
This has the potential to be the main story of Barr's campaign. At a brunch for staff on Sunday, Barr acknowledged that the tightening Georgia polls have boosted his media coverage. The final public poll of the state put Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at 49 percent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at 48 percent, and Barr at 2 percent—down from his pre-Sarah Palin selection peak, but holding steady enough for Obama to potentially win a traditionally Republican state with a plurality of the vote. "If Obama wins this state," says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, "it will be in part because of Bob Barr."
There are two main challenges here for Barr. The first is that the tightness in the race is keeping some Republicans from casting protest votes. "We'd be above 5 percent if Republicans weren't struggling now," says Adams. The second is that Barr, like Ralph Nader before him, could become a scapegoat for a party that blew a presidential election. The mighty state GOP might go looking to retaliate. "I'm sure Republicans would like to limit [Libertarians'] ballot access right now," Bullock says. "But it's not easy to do when they play by the rules and score enough votes for regular access every year."
This year John Monds, a black Libertarian and NAACP leader, is one of only two candidates for state Public Services Commissioner. The party estimates his absolute minimum level of support at 25 percent, easily enough to maintain the party's ballot access, paving the way for Barr to do what many of his supporters hope—run for U.S. Senate in 2010.
People in Barr's headquarters aren't wasting their time thinking about this stuff on their final days of work. It just comes up when voters resist their entreaties to vote for the Only Candidate Against the Bailout. In the morning, LP media coordinator Andrew Davis posts Barr's final pre-election column for Townhall.com. In the afternoon, he sees the commenters and e-mailers attacking Barr for having the audacity to run. "Who financed your run this time, huh?" says one commenter from Georgia. "Soros or Barack, himself?"
The campaign brushes it off. When some of the phonebankers place an order for sandwiches, Sandstrom writes an IOU for Flood on a yellow post-it note. "Why don't you just give him a Federal Reserve note?" snarks Peterson. Longtime Barr staffer Jennifer Chambrin makes the necessary calls to cater and decorate Barr's election night party. Media Guru Steve Stinton keeps track of Barr's final run of appearances on a calendar that plans them up through Thursday. Vice presidential nominee Wayne Allyn Root's e-mail blasts announcing his latest radio appearances—"Wayne's on Jerry Doyle!"—are read as they come in. All of the big questions—the million-vote target, Barr's impact on the race, the bitterness of the GOP—will be answered soon enough.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.