Where Did the Libertarian Party Go Wrong?

A postmortem on Bob Barr's presidential run


From the outset, Bob Barr's Libertarian run for the presidency was fraught with great expectations.

For many Libertarian Party members, the former Georgia congressman was a living hope, an actual experienced politician with a national reputation and real fundraising experience who could finally beat both fundraising and vote totals for the perennially beleaguered party in its 10th presidential campaign. It was the year of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), after all, and there was also a GOP candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was largely mistrusted by the small-government (and social conservative) right. Visions of $30 million spun in libertarian heads; expectations soared to include a million LP votes counted on election night.

It was a new dawn for the LP, former national executive director and Barr campaign higher-up Shane Cory told Atlanta magazine. The folks who had dominated the party in those long, lonely pre-Barr years, he said, "had changed it from a political party into a debating society. It was the church of Libertarianism. I'm not saying that in a condescending way. But we're turning it around. This is a more pragmatic approach."

Well, for an approach Cory frames as pragmatic, it didn't really work. It's all over now, and Barr failed as both fundraiser and candidate to even approach those high early expectations. The total money raised was $1.2 million; total votes came in at 510,000.

Now, the backbiting and, as Barr media consultant Audrey Mullen put it to me last week, the intra-libertarian "circular firing squad" may begin.

If one did want to spin the results postively, it can rightly be said that Barr managed to get the second highest raw vote total of any Libertarian presidential candidate ever. However, if you recast that in percentage terms, he was only 4th, behind not only raw vote-champion Ed Clark in 1980, but also Ron Paul in 1988 and Harry Browne in 1996.

To be sure, we'd be having this same discussion about recrimination and failure regardless of who the LP nominated—though Barr's opponents for the nomination would not have inflated expectations so much. I heard plenty of anecdotal evidence describing hardcore LP activists so disgusted by Barr's right-wing past (and, in their reading, present) that they sat out doing any volunteer work, providing donations, canvassing, or even voting for him; I heard some LP watchers assume that because of these anecdotes, Barr only got about half the straight LP vote that a candidate more congenial to the party's hardcore would have received, and that the rest of his votes must have come from right-wingers disgruntled with McCain. (For their part, Barr campaign workers blame Obama, or at least McCain's ability to frighten right-leaning voters of him so much that even if they liked Barr better, they felt they had to tactically vote GOP.)

But such anecdotes come from a few dozen people who are intimately familiar with the decisions of maybe a couple of dozen more people each, and with no one surveying actual LP voters to parse out their actions and decisions scientifically, we're all trying to capture a wraith: We just don't know how many of the LP's traditional core voters decided to sit out 2008 or maybe go Baldwin (or Nader).

But even in the beginning, the LP was filled with people who doubted Barr's ability to perform—and what's more, they thought that even if he did approach those high vote totals, he'd still be a liability to the LP, since his candidacy would link the party with a set of watered-down right-wing stances, not true libertarianism. One of the leading movement watchers who believed this, Thomas Knapp, summed it up this way: "In terms of vote totals, his failures put him firmly in the LP 'usual' pack. In terms of effect on the Libertarian Party, he probably set us back 20 years."

One area of reasonably unequivocal success for the Barr campaign came in high-level media coverage, with either profiles or at least one story in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and many others prominent papers, as well as appearances on The Colbert Report and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, a fair number of repeat performances on CNN and other cable news outlets, and even a NBC Nightly News segment. The campaign itself told me last week they planned to compile a full list of media and personal appearances any day now; but media consultant Mullen, who worked with the campaign during its first half, tells me she's sure she booked over 300 substantial TV and radio slots.

But all that free media didn't help much in the end. Complaints about Barr's performance within the LP world can be roughly divided into three categories, which in turn may have affected the vote totals he got (or didn't get) in various ways:

1. He wasn't libertarian enough. From the beginning, he was attacked for being too federalist and not enough of a libertarian on matters such as the drug war and gay marriage, being insufficiently emphatic about non-interventionist foreign policy and getting out of Iraq, and too right-wing on matters like border security. Many in the LP distrusted him as a carpetbagger from the beginning, and little about the way he conducted his campaign calmed down such detractors. Barr's Leadership Fund PAC, for instance, gave money this go-round to many GOP candidates who were directly fighting LP ones.

He issued press releases with tender reminiscences of Jesse Helms, called for stronger border security, and offered a federalist defense of the Defense of Marriage Act—one of his legislative accomplishments—as the very heart and soul of libertarianism. His very last press release as a candidate, curiously, commended federal prosecutors for investigating financial firms.

Whether or not that's the sort of government action that even a libertarian can support, it was a very strange choice as a press release—issued on the day before the election, no less. When Barr talked about the bailout at length on TV, he tended to stress not so much thoughtful explanations as to how government policies, from Fed interest rate manipulation and inflation to encouraging subprime mortgages, might have helped create the crisis; instead, he stressed prosecuting fraud and enforcing the laws already on the books, and other such claptrap.

While Barr could be sharp on the need to withdraw from Iraq, when asked to make a big statement on the problems the U.S. faced in the world on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, he didn't mention war, peace, overstrained overseas commitments, or empire. He instead gave a weird peroration on how the real problem is that we've lost influence in the world and need to improve our ability to enforce our will and "protect our interests" worldwide.

Barr was good on privacy and wiretapping, favorite issues of his, and when soundbiting it, he'd correctly define libertarianism as maximizing freedom and minimizing government power.

But he didn't tend to be particularly thoughtful and exciting when fleshing out what that principle might mean for Americans of different interests—from education to drugs to sexual freedom to trade to immigration. Campaign manager Russ Verney told me they deliberately decided the election would be won and lost on economic issues and wanted to stick to them. As New York state LP chair Eric Sundwall told me—in a complaint that captures the feelings of lots of LPers—this meant that for his taste, Barr "was uninspiring, he was unimaginative, he was no fun."

Additionally, a big complaint from local and state LP activists who figure that, since victory is never an option, party growth and branding has to be what it's all about, was that lots of the campaign literature and early material didn't flag the "Libertarian Party" at all. Verney stood by that decision: "The one name we had to embed in people's minds was Barr; we didn't want anyone thinking of anything but Barr. The initial phase of a campaign is always to introduce the candidate and the Barr name was the only name we wanted to keep repeating."

2. He muffed the "Ron Paul transition." Ron Paul riled up an unprecedentedly large and energetic bunch of grassroots libertarian action in late 2007 and early 2008. He failed to win the GOP presidential nomination he sought, and disappointed his followers and many within the LP by not seeking its nomination, or making any kind of independent presidential run. Where would his fans and their energy go? Barr's campaign wanted, and mostly thought it deserved, to inherit the crown—even to have it handed over to them.

Instead, after what some insiders credit to poor personal relations and bad attitudes on the part of some Paul staffers toward the LP and some Barr staffers toward Paul, and partially to a bruised ego on Barr's part, the campaign chose to alienate Paul by refusing at the last minute to show up to an all-third-party press conference Paul threw back in September. As a result, as I was told by LP grandees from across the nation, the Barr campaign had a hard time tapping into all that leftover Paul partisan energy.

Verney told me last week that he still stands by that decision. For Ron Paul to essentially say "I endorse four people for president and if you don't wanna vote at all, I endorse that too—that wasn't leadership for liberty, and I saw no need to recommend that Bob Barr be involved in it."

Paul, as it turned out, did eventually endorse the Constitution Party's religious conservative Chuck Baldwin. Barr still beat Baldwin silly. And Barr's vote total plus Baldwin's still fell far short of a million. Whatever the Paul Revolution will mean to the future of American politics, it was not to mean much to the presidential election this year.

3. Campaign or Shampaign? Some critics just think Barr didn't do enough, efficiently enough, and with enough intra-LP cooperation. Whatever it would have taken to get those tens of millions of dollars, or that million votes, it didn't happen. But what would have? No one knows.

Free media was, as noted, about as good as could be hoped for given a campaign that was not making news in any real sense. Participation in the presidential debates were the key, campaign official Steve Gordon thinks, and he said he knew as soon as that didn't happen that early happy predictions of big vote totals were no longer operative. (For his part, Barr mostly refused to participate in third party debates, doing only one, the week before the election.)

But you don't get in the debates without polling 15 percent. And you don't poll 15 percent without more money and media. However, you don't get the money until you are getting enough free media exposure of the sort that being in the debates would lead to.

Verney told me they found that personal fundraising appearances weren't paying off; and neither were a lot of their efforts in direct mail. Ultimately, "we found most of the lists we tested showed that they would require persuasion; they wouldn't be money makers and we didn't have money to invest in prospecting. We eventually settled almost exclusively on contributors or people who had contacted the campaign and LP lists and some conservative lists, specific issue lists of causes Bob had been involved with previously."

Gordon, who was in charge of e-promotion for the campaign, said they had a list of over 30,000 emails to promote appearances and fundraise from. He also did what he could to keep interest alive in Web 2.0 media like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Meetup. But Barr never took off there the way Ron Paul did.

Local LPers from New York to Iowa to North Carolina to Tennessee complained to me about lack of communication and coordination from the Barr campaign, particularly annoyed by its decision to charge, in most cases, local volunteers for campaign materials—as if the campaign was in the business of selling brochures and signs rather than trying to win votes. Perhaps as a result, many statewide LP candidates beat Barr in votes, showing some verifiable sign of the Barr alienation effect on otherwise reliable LP voters.

As Tennessee Senate candidate Daniel Lewis told me, after complaining that Barr never showed up in his state despite being based in nearby Atlanta, Lewis spent just $500 on his Senate race and outpolled Barr in the state. In North Carolina, hotshot gubernatorial candidate Michael Munger received nearly five times as many votes in the state as Barr did.

Barr campaign field coordinator Mike Ferguson said they chose to concentrate on certain potential swing states, to maximize the chances that Barr's results, if they beat the spread between the major party candidates (which did happen in Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina), would generate media juice about the campaign's importance. Ferguson grants that they could probably have juiced the national vote total more by putting more time and effort into, say, Texas or California. Instead, he tells me, they made states such as Ohio (0.4 percent, less than a third of the vote total an LP federal House candidate from the state got), Georgia (0.7 percent, and less than a fourth the votes a Senate candidate from Georgia earned), and Colorado (0.5 percent, and less votes than an LP House candidate from the state copped) among their top priorities.

Intramural complaints about how the campaign did spend the small amount it raised also abound—Susan Hogarth, outreach director for the North Carolina state LP, for one, wondered why a libertarian campaign needed to spend over $100,000 on political consultants (and also complained how, as an early critic of the campaign, she was initially locked out of being able to volunteer for phone banking, though she was later permitted to participate). Barr staffer Gordon wondered if allowing donors to specifically give to help broadcast one of a selection of potential ads they chose themselves might have helped raise money for TV ads; and George Phillies, one of Barr's nomination foes, is annoyed with the campaign for spending $18,000 on limos.

What legacy did Barr leave for the LP? He has been OK, but not fabulous, in bringing in new members—netting the Party slightly less than 2,000 new members during his campaign.

While ballot access for the LP is mostly a responsibility of the national and state parties rather than the presidential campaign, the Barr camp did, according to ballot access maven Richard Winger, take responsibility for getting on three ballots—West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C.—and failed in all three. Winger thinks one of Barr's potential great legacies for the party will come from easing ballot access rules via a lawsuit in Massachusetts that, after the appeals process plays out, may end up establishing valuable precedent for the entire First Federal judicial circuit, easing ballot access in many states for the future.

The LP's problems with electoral traction predate Bob Barr's campaign. A realistic and fair critique of Barr should not stress that, oh, somehow he uniquely blew it; he earned, after all, within a margin of error, as many votes as most LP candidates have tended to receive during the past 20 years.

And I don't think that the raw vote number should be totally pooh-poohed. Getting the second highest total is encouraging, even if not so impressive in national percentage terms, once you realize that actually winning a national election isn't the realistic goal.

I've always had a soft spot for libertarian movement OG Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, and his "each one teach one" mentality toward libertarian education. I can look at that 510,000 raw vote number and see 510,000 people who, probably, understand the libertarian message about government—which is more people who understood and acted on such a belief than in any election since 1980.

But it would also be fair to conclude that Barr's failures prove that merely bringing in a serious politician, with past successes and no stress on the more eccentric aspects of libertarianism (Barr loved to call libertarianism an American "mainstream" idea and the LP a "mainstream" party), was not the way to bring the LP to any kind of national next level, even in a year when small government devotees really had nowhere else viable to turn. Which means the libertarian movement, and the Libertarian Party, are out of quick fixes, and still face the long, slow, possibly eternal work of changing minds in a libertarian direction, one citizen or voter at a time.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.