Saturday, April 22, 2006

First Look 2008: George Phillies


[Note: This article is one in a series on prospective candidates for the Libertarian Party's 2008 presidential nomination]

I'm a fan and friend of George Phillies -- I've been working with him in various capacities on various projects for six years now. Still, I was surprised when he declared his candidacy for the Libertarian Party's 2008 presidential nomination, and I'm frankly skeptical of his ability to garner that nomination.

Let's start out with his positives:

- He's declared early and actually begun the work of putting together a campaign. These two things have to go together to be significant. Lots of people declare early and never do anything between declaring and showing up at the convention to collect their five or ten delegate votes. Phillies has already rolled out a video commercial on his still-under-construction web site. And he's given himself two years to develop a public profile outside the party.

- He's a long-time LP activist with a small, but hardcore, national base of support in the party (in three runs for the chairmanship of the Libertarian National Committee, two of them decided by delegates who also chose a presidential nominee, he's polled between 15% and 23%).

- He's the author of two books which bear on LP politics. "Stand Up For Liberty!" is his manifesto on party organization for political victory. "Funding Liberty" is an in-depth analysis of the conduct of the LP's 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns. He also publishes an internal, unofficial LP periodical, Let Freedom Ring!/Libertarian Strategy Gazette.

- He's played key roles in several major LP campaigns. This has gained him contact with, and admiration from, LP campaign veterans whose support -- and work -- would be valuable to him in seeking the nomination.

- His political activities already extend outside the LP. For example, he chairs his county's ACLU affiliate. He's not yet a major national political figure by any stretch of the imagination ... but in a party that tends toward an extreme inward focus, any outside affiliations are both refreshing and promising.

- While non-political academic credentials (he's a physics professor with a doctorate from MIT) are a thin rope to climb toward the presidency, he can claim to have administrative experience on numerous faculty committees and such as a professor at Worcester Polytechnic.

- It never hurts to be a veteran. Phillies is (Army Reserve).

Now, to the negatives:

While he has a hardcore base of national support within the LP, he also has a hardcore "anti-base" which, in my opinion, is roughly correspondent to his level of support. Taking his chairmanship vote numbers as a guide and giving him the benefit of all doubt, let's do a little hypothetical math:

Assuming 1,000 delegates, 230 in firm, unwavering support of Phillies (that's 23%, his best vote total for chair, so it's a high assumption), and 15% in unwavering opposition to Phillies (that's 15%, his worst vote total for chair), he's 271 votes short of the majority required to capture the nomination. There are 620 delegate votes still "out there." Phillies is going to have to capture more than 4 out of every 10 of those votes.

And, of course, there will be other candidates with their own committed bases of support. Even assuming only one other viable candidate, with a similar, equally committed base of support (23%) and 50% overlap of that base with the "Anyone but Phillies" vote, a net of 165 more votes are already out of play, which means that Phillies is now trying to get 271 votes from a pool of 455 -- or right at 6 of 10 "available" votes.

I just don't see it happening. While I admire George Phillies, have supported him for chair in the past (and will likely continue to do so), and substantially agree with him on the direction the party should take, I also recognize that he's a polarizing figure in the LP. Those who love him, love him. Those who hate him, hate him. Those who don't love him or hate him don't care about him at all and aren't likely to start caring about him enough to support him in a contested presidential nomination vote.

Now that I've said I don't see it happening, I'll describe how it could happen:

- Phillies could build genuine, non-LP, positive, national name recognition for himself. That name recognition would filter into the LP in the form of new members who enter the party pre-disposed to support him, many of whom might serve as delegates to the 2008 national convention; and in the form of current members who move from the "don't care about Phillies" or even the "don't like Phillies" column to the "Phillies for President" column.

- Alternatively, Phillies could run an extremely aggressive internal party campaign to mobilize his supporters and get them, as opposed to his opponents, onto convention delegations, skewing those delegations more in his favor.

This is a tossup. Phillies' view of how the party should operate tends toward the first strategy. His demonstrated abilities tend toward the second. Of course, there's no reason that both strategies can't be pursued ... but it's also true that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and that either strategy will require the expenditure of lots of time, money and effort which may or may not be available to him.

Phillies' candidacy is a fragile thing: The entrance into the race of a more nationally visible candidate would cut further into the pool of available delegate votes, and would probably even erode his "base." It seems to me that the success, or even continuation, of his campaign is predicated on the notion that the LP will continue to choose from among "party insiders" rather than finding a bona fide national figure to carry its banner.

It may even be that his campaign is intended to "raise the bar" -- to force "insider" campaigns to a higher standard of performance on the premise that we're not going to have the option of a nominating a nationally prominent candidate and that we therefore need to squeeze more utility out of the "insider" menu. If so, he's already made a substantial contribution by unveiling an Internet video "commercial" -- presumably intended for television production and airing when the money's there -- two years in advance. For the sake of comparison, in 2004 only two of the three "front-runners" had commercials "in the can" by the time of the nominating convention, and only one was actually airing them.

I'll continue to watch the Phillies campaign with interest. There may be surprises in store.

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