Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Parting thoughts on the Barr campaign

Brian Doherty asks "Where Did the Libertarian Party Go Wrong?" over at Reason. It's not the first post-election critique of Bob Barr's presidential campaign, nor will it be the last, but it's an interesting one, and since it quotes me, I think I'll go ahead and set my own thoughts down at greater length.

First, the quote: "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."

I have to say that I'm already mellowing a bit from that initial take. How far the Barr campaign sets back the LP doesn't have to be a function of the Barr campaign -- the rest of us have something to say about it too. We can allow 2008 to cast a long shadow, or we can break in a different direction and leave 2008 behind.

For that matter, in terms of performance at the polls, Barr was not really a failure by LP standards. In terms of percentage of the vote, he performed in the middle of the LP presidential pack (4th place of 10 campaigns).

There was also a strategic decision on the campaign's part to target "battleground" states in an attempt to "change" the election outcome, rather than to go after the "low-hanging fruit" of more votes in "safe" Democrat or Republican states where the voters wouldn't be as worried about "costing" one major party or the other the election. That's something I can't fault the Barr campaign for. It was a judgment call they had to make. Michael Badnarik's 2004 campaign made the same call in the same way, targeting New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin as potential "spoiler" opportunities. If 2008 hadn't turned into a blowout, there was every chance that the Barr campaign's strategy would have worked.

Some observers -- among them, I believe, Ballot Access News publisher Richard Winger -- believe that the LP and third parties in general will benefit in the long run from the Barr campaign's ballot access litigation. If so, that's a good thing and Barr should receive credit for it.

The failure from a Libertarian Party standpoint, in my view, is that Barr didn't run a libertarian campaign. If the GOP nominated Barbara Boxer for president, or the Democrats picked Tom DeLay, the "base" of either party would consider that presidential campaign a failure regardless of how many votes the candidate picked up. Barr was a mismatch for the LP. He ran as a Dixiecrat "states rights" conservative, and in doing so he at least partially and temporarily re-branded the LP away from libertarianism and toward his own ideology to some as yet unknown extent.

Coke does not give its "salesman of the year" award to the guy who moves the most cases of Pepsi. The Pope does not canonize the woman who converts the most people to Buddhism. The LP's designated sales manager for this year went out and sold something other than the LP's product. That's a failure in itself, and a failure to the extent that it creates an ongoing public misperception as to what the LP's product is.

Now, back to those vote totals: Was 510,000 votes a "failure?" Above, I say that it wasn't ... by LP standards. But those aren't the only applicable standards.

The standard set by Barr campaign manager Russ Verney from the stage at the LP's 2008 national convention was raising $40 million and winning the election. I doubt that very many people believed it was really going to happen (or that Verney believed it himself), but when you hype numbers, you can expect those numbers to come back to haunt you.

At least as late as October (and possibly later), Barr running mate Wayne Allyn Root confidently predicted "1-3 million votes." He did so on October 5th in the New York Times. That's a hard number, and Root is a Las Vegas oddsmaker.

"Libertarian" Republican and sometimes Barr/Root booster Eric Dondero's predictions swung wildly around numbers he cherry-picked from polls (while ignoring the history of actual LP vote totals on election day versus earlier poll numbers), but in August he hedged his bet to the low side and set a standard for "success" --

[T]he media is completely ignoring the Libertarian yard stick for success: Beating Ed Clark. Libertarian Ed Clark's campaign received 922,000 votes in 1980, 1.1%. It is the all-time benchmark for success for Libertarian Presidential campaigns. ... The magic number for success for Bob Barr for President remains -- 922,001.

Of course today, Dondero is in full-out backtrack mode, decrying the Doherty article and bitterly bitching that people should acknowledge the "success" of a campaign which fell far short of his own stated standard.

One of the curious elements of Dondero's argument is that percentages are irrelevant -- only raw vote totals matter. I disagree. Two votes is more than one vote, but whether or not two votes are better than one vote depends on how many people are voting. One vote out of two is damn good. Two votes out of two million isn't.

In 1996, Harry Browne received 485,798 votes out of 96.2 million total votes cast.

In 2008, Bob Barr received about 510,000 votes out of 126.7 million votes cast.

Thirty million more voters, but only 24 thousand more votes. It's impossible to believably spin that into any kind of great "success."

A stray note on competence:

It's impossible to tell how things might have come out had the Barr campaign been competently managed ... but it's reasonable to think, on the basis of casual observation, that it wasn't. Needless ballot access problems, message ranging from "true conservative" to downright incoherence, five figures on an air conditioner for an office that was leased for five months, $18,000 in limo bills ... the organization appeared dysfunctional.

Mike Ferguson is one of the most competent individuals I know. I say that because it's true -- nobody's going to mistake us for best buddies. Given an environment of general competence, I suspect Ferguson would have been a very effective campaign operative, boosting Barr's vote total everywhere he went. Instead, he seemed to get stuck spending most of the campaign hauling ass around the country and trying to unscrew other people's screwups (for example, the West Virginia ballot access debacle).

As early as the LP's Denver convention in June, I observed that Steve Gordon seemed to have already been moved to the campaign's sidelines once Russ Verney took over as manager. Gordon denied it, but the impression remained. Frankly, I suspect that Gordon would have been a better pick for campaign manager than Verney, whose main claim to fame is that he managed to bring Ross Perot -- a wildly popular public figure with effectively unlimited campaign funds and who at one point was polling toward victory -- in at 20% in 1992. Gordon has the requisite nuts and bolts skills, and he was better positioned than Verney to get the LP's supporters in the mood to work for the campaign's success from the very beginning. Even setting aside later events, Verney's presence at the nominating convention probably cost Barr votes, and cooled reception toward his nomination, by bolstering the campaign's outsider/"Darth Vader" image.

But I could be wrong on those things. It's happened before.

Hopefully, in 2012 Libertarians will think their presidential nomination selection through from the ground up -- starting with the message they want to convey and then looking at which candidate conveys that message most effectively. Nothing wrong with hitching one's wagon to a star, but only if the star is going to pull that wagon in the direction you want to go.

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