ATLANTA—"I just want to say," says Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Allen Buckley, "I'm a little disappointed right now. I think I was vastly superior to both of my opponents."
There's a certain freedom that comes with belonging to a third party. Tuesday night in Georgia, Libertarians were the second happiest partisans you could find. Did they win anything new? No. Did they break the all-time Libertarian vote total in the presidential race? Also no. There was disappointment and a little surprise that anger at the Wall Street bailout and pessimism about Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) prospects failed to pry loose more conservatives over to the party of small government.
"When all the dust settles here, in January," said Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr, "people are going to be upset about a government that's offering more bailouts and less freedom."
Tuesday night Libertarians were a sideshow in a historical event on par with the moon landing. In downtown Atlanta, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a block party broke out across the street from where Martin Luther King, Jr. used to preach. Entrepreneuers rushed to Auburn Ave. with boxes full of quickly screened Obama T-shirts with the label "44th President," and rally flags with Obama's face next to King's. At a ritzy bar up the street, the sound went down as Obama gave his victory speech—then the DJ scratched a record and played James Brown's "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." Down the street, jeeps parked, dancers climbed on top, and radios blasted songs such as "I Believe I Can Fly." White stragglers who'd biked down to watch it all exchanged fist-bumps with people they'd never met and might never meet again. It was that kind of a night.
Uptown at Barr's election party, the proceedings were a little more mundane. A bank of bloggers and Libertarian staffers refreshed and refreshed their browsers to see how their favored candidates were faring. "Where's Bill Redpath?" one yelled when CNN pronounced Democrat Mark Warner the winner in Virginia's Senate race, skipping over the strong showing by the chairman of the Libertarian Party.
Throughout the night, party operators like Stewart Flood and Daniel Adams were checking the progress of John Monds, a black businessman who'd run on the ticket for Georgia Public Services Commissioner. If Monds could win more than 25 percent of the vote, that would mean he received more votes than any Libertarian candidate in any U.S. election, ever—surpassing even Ed Clark's 1980 totals for president. At 11 p.m. it was clear he would get there. Monds took the stage just as the networks were calling the presidential race for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Even Bob Barr had a kind assessment about the history-making Democrat who, along with John McCain, had denied Barr his shot at the presidency. "It just illustrates the tremendous demographic changes, generational changes in this country," Barr said. "This really is a very different country, in some ways much better country, than it was several years ago."
That assessment is going to become a cliché this week, largely because it's true. Barack Obama won the presidency while losing traditional Democratic ground in slow-growing areas of the country. Take the state of Pennsylvania, where McCain had made his last stand, predicated on the hope that the gun-owning whites whom Obama had called "bitter" would march to the polls for the GOP. Sure enough, Obama carried only two counties in southwest Pennsylvania, one of them Allegheny, which contains the city of Pittsburgh. But Pittsburgh is the only part of that region growing in population. In suburbanized eastern Pennsylvania, Obama won by a landslide, carrying every county that borders Philadelphia, sweeping the counties on the Pennsylvania Turnpike up to Lackawanna. It wasn't just Joe Biden's 45-minute bromides about playing stick ball in Scranton that did it. It was a changing electorate lifting up a candidate of change.
For Libertarian and libertarian-minded candidates, this was the wrong kind of electoral shift. The charismatic B.J. Lawson was always going to have a tough time convincing voters in his liberal North Carolina district that he, too, was a change candidate. He couldn't survive the Obama wave. Wake County, which casts most of the votes in his district, swung from a narrow Bush victory in 2004 to a 57-42 Obama landslide. Lawson got buried underneath it. Damien Ober, a media-savvy LP candidate in D.C. who raised real money and campaigned on an anti-bailout, anti-tax platform, couldn't win 3 percent of the vote for a powerless office. Karen Kerin, who won the Libertarian and Republican nominations for attorney general in Vermont, scored only 20 percent.
Libertarians were much luckier, as usual, at winning state ballot initiatives. There were a few prominent losses, such as the San Francisco prostitution legalization measure and an income tax repeal in Massachusetts. Many libertarians will be distraught at the victory of anti-gay marriage laws in California, Arizona, and Florida, as well as a gay adoption ban in Arkansas. But California was a squeaker that took all the power of the Mormon Church and scores of split-ticket black voters, and the margins in Arizona and Florida were smaller than the margins in bluer states four years ago. Medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization won everywhere that voters had a choice, as those issues often do.
Still, some of the Libertarians at Barr's party were worried about the results. Many still had Republican sympathies. "I would have preferred that McCain win, if Bob couldn't," said Mark du Mas, a Barr neighbor who maxed out donating to his campaign and leased him the campain office. "Ultimately we've got to have a galvanizing issue that gets people so angry that they abandon the two parties," said Andy Kalat, who also preferred McCain as a second choice.
The Barr campaign didn't bother with recriminations. Vice presidential nominee Wayne Allyn Root took the stage before Barr to lambast the "McCain-Obama bailout," calling the two parties "dumb and dumber, big and bigger." He had bet, publicly, that McCain would win the election. "He was winning until he voted for the bailout!" Root said after the speech. "But I didn't lose big money. I bet on Barr/Root!" Back on stage, he promised the crowd that he'd "see you again in 2012, maybe as your president-elect!"
Root didn't act bothered about losing the vice presidency, and he had a laugh at the coming era of Joe Biden gaffes. "I only put my foot in my mouth once in this campaign. And that was with you guys!"
Barr, who rarely campaigned alongside Root, brought him back on stage for his concession speech. "He got to go to all the good places, like California," Barr said. "I got to…well, I shouldn't say anything about the other states." Without a clear victory for the party to point to (it was obvious already that Ralph Nader would beat the party for third place, although Barr would outpoll 2004 LP candidate Michael Badnarik), Barr praised his staff and voters for a campaign run on the issues. "You ain't seen nothing yet!" Barr promised.
After the speech, Barr declined to rule out another run for office, saying he'd pick up his legal and punditry careers where he left them, although he'd lost his Alexandria, Virginia office when his landlords, the American Conservative Union, soured on his potentially McCain-spoiling run for president.
Barr turned 60 the day after the election. There wouldn't be such a ready crowd that night. So after his concession speech, caterers rolled out a cake, and the candidate blew out the candles. The night moved on at a languid pace as he signed autographs, reminisced with staff, and did a "live" media interview that was pushed back more often than the release date for Chinese Democracy. Later Barr and his staff decamped to his office to drink champagne and shoot plastic "Livestrong"-style bracelets at each other like rubber bands. The candidate sat down briefly at a computer to load up the Georgia Secretary of State's page. "I'm looking for something interesting in the state House races," he said. "Nothing yet."
In May, Barr had disputed the idea that 2008 represented a "libertarian moment." "I think," he said then, "that we're in a libertarian era." If that's true, it's an era that won't include any elected members of America's largest third party in Washington. But pundits are no longer talking about a "permanent Republican majority" based on social conservativism and small town votes.
This year is ending with Bob Barr, Ron Paul, and Wayne Allyn Root holding media megaphones they didn't have as recently as January. What will they do with that prominence? What will libertarians do now that the Republican Party has receded back to pre-Reagan levels of influence? That's for no one candidate to decide.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.