Barr: McCain Bane or Obama Obstacle?

As Alex reports below, former Republican congressman Bob Barr has thrown his hat into the Libertarian Party nomination contest. Assuming Barr does secure the Libertarian nomination–a big assumption, given that the LP isn’t exactly known for picking the most electable presidential candidates–how much of an impact will Barr really have in November, and if so, on whom? Certainly the conventional wisdom is that LP candidates generally draw from Republicans more than Democrats, but would that hold in this election year?

One of Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder’s correspondents suggests that presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama may face more of a challenge from Barr than John McCain will:

There is a line of thought to which i am tempted to subscribe at this early hour that Barr actually hurts Obama more than McCain. Most of the libertarian voters would probably be tempted to vote against McCain and the horrible Republican record on [the Iraq war and civil liberties] and if Obama was the only choice, Obama could get it (since he has actually pretty good on the narrow subject of civil liberties) which would be a way to secure those margins in the West to the Democratic party for quite a while.

It is difficult to know for sure where those voters would have gone but when a Republican constituency goes from swing voters with two choices to third-party leaners, it is a loss opportunity for Obama at the very least.

It seems more likely to me, however, that Barr’s appeal will largely be to social conservatives who remember his behavior in Congress more than his (partial) conversion to libertarian orthodoxy. That said, the continued acrimony in the Democratic primaries could drive at least some of the rump Clinton campaign’s supporters, who decades ago we might have called the “Reagan Democrats,” into Barr’s camp in November to Obama’s detriment, at least if the polls in states like West Virginia are to be believed.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. Patrick T McGuire says:

    I have been waiting for this to happen. Bob Barr will pick up many conservative voters who don’t want to vote for McCain but had little choice as they couldn’t vote for Obama or Clinton either. For many conservatives, it’s been a choice of holding our noses and voting McCain (as McCain’s own mother indicated) or not voting at all. Now, there is another, far more palatable, choice.

    And as for Obama, the Clinton voters will need somewhere to go as well. Already most of them have said they won’t vote Obama and similarly they would probably just sit out the election without another choice. They now have another choice, someone who is also anti-McCain, which again is a more palatable choice.

    Look for a real three-way race this fall. Not like the past where there were two real candidates and a spoiler, but three candidates who each have their own demographic appeal.

    Obama will get the extreme left, McCain will get some of the middle, and Barr will get the far right, the disenchanted Republicans, and the Clinton voters. This election is now really up for grabs.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:


    You’ve got the inside track man. Just go over to intrade and buy up all the Barr you can find. Heck, see if you can’t just get a deal for if he takes second.

    Reality is that there is no candidate who can successfully pull “the far right” because McCain isn’t conservative enough and the Clinton voters because they are bitter over Obama.

    I doubt Barr gets above 1% of the vote (which would be a near record for the libertarian party).

  3. Triumph says:

    That said, the continued acrimony in the Democratic primaries could drive at least some of the rump Clinton campaign’s supporters, who decades ago we might have called the “Reagan Democrats,” into Barr’s camp in November to Obama’s detriment, at least if the polls in states like West Virginia are to be believed.

    Yeah, right. Obama would win West Virginia easy if Barr wasn’t in the race.

  4. Fence says:

    I’m more libertarian than traditional GOP or Dem. When the words “Bob Barr” are spoken, the first thing I think of is the idiotic Clinton impeachment proceeding. It is kind of hard to get past that in an election where both of the major candidates actually have far more than the usual credibility that they will focus on real problems and not the petty partisanship that Bob Barr championed.

    I haven’t thought about the impeachment thing in quite awhile. If Gore had become President in 1999, I’ll bet he would have done at least 600 votes better in Florida. Wow, most likely he would just now be wrapping up the end of an almost decade-long Presidency, and almost none of us would have ever heard of a dangling chad, anbar province, or the words “Speaker Pelosi.”

  5. legion says:

    People (at least, people who normally vote for one of the two major parties) vote for third-party candidates for one reason and one reason only: They hate their own party’s candidate more than the prospect of the other major party’s.

    If I truly detested Obama, and found the idea of a McCain presidency at least acceptable, I’d consider voting for a third-party runner as a protest. I’d consider this because:
    – I’d know the recipient of my vote would actually win
    – If Obama won, it’d be by less of a margin, giving him (hopefully) a wake-up call that he doesn’t have a mandate from everyone
    – If McCain won, that would be ok too

    If, on the other hand, I found the prospect of McCain winning to be a nightmare scenario second only to Cheney taking over, I’d close ranks behind whoever my party’s nominee was and just suck it up.

    I suspect the same goes for pretty much all of Barr’s potential voters (with the exception of the Paultards; nobody can predict what they’ll do) – if they think there’s a chance their vote might be the difference between their non-first-choice candidate winning versus the other party’s absolute horrorshow, they’ll dump Barr and vote the party line. If they think neither candidate would actively destroy the planet, they’ll vote Barr all the way.

  6. DL says:

    It’s a name other than Obama or McCain. Why should social conservatives be the only responsible ones worried about what electing either of those two means for the country? Barr will hurt McCain by stealing a lot of the “hold your nose and vote” crowd. He doesn’t need many votes to do the damage in these days of “both parties are alike” voting. Now if he can get Fred to be his VP, things would really get interesting.