Nice guys finish last. Real conservatives don’t even finish third. That’s the sad takeaway from the longest yet least eventful presidential campaign in American history. While the mainstream right continues its weeping and gnashing of teeth over John McCain’s loss, conservatives who prefer stronger stuff should be more disappointed by the third-party vote totals this year.
Both the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party hoped to have breakout years in 2008. The issue environment was favorable to a strong third-party challenge from the right. There were millions of even fairly conventional conservatives who disapproved of the Republicans’ chosen presidential candidate. And Ron Paul made a big splash running in the GOP primaries on a platform of constitutionally limited government, sound money, secure borders, and a noninterventionist foreign policy.
The Libertarians nominated former Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, who is saner than his old party on foreign policy and saner than his new one on abortion and immigration. Barr was the most serious Libertarian presidential nominee since Dr. Paul two decades ago and perhaps the most famous ever.
The Constitution Party’s Chuck Baldwin wasn’t as well known, but he proved himself— and his small party’s commitment to principle—when won the nomination by defeating perennial candidate Alan Keyes. Keyes is no stranger to political defeat but he is a celebrity by third-party standards. Baldwin was the purest, most consistent paleoconservative in the race for the White House and he had Paul’s endorsement.
Both men performed at the high end of their respective parties’ presidential vote totals. Neither did well enough to finish a very distant third, much less command the attention of the GOP or the rest of the electorate. According to CNN, Barr received 498,542 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting. That’s the second highest number of votes ever won by a Libertarian presidential candidate, though it’s a far cry from Ed Clark’s 921,128 in 1980 and only about 13,000 votes more than Harry Browne got in 1996. Barr is the fifth straight Libertarian nominee to come in fourth or worse. Based on the usual Libertarian turnout, it is conceivable that he attracted less than 100,000 voters who would normally pull the GOP lever.
In other words, running a high-profile former congressman who conducted a more or less professional campaign gets the Libertarians about 90,000 more votes than when they run a complete unknown who believes driver’s licenses constitute an initiation of force and talks about confining prison inmates to their beds until their muscles atrophy. This showing is particularly disappointing, because reputable national polls showed Barr winning as much as 6 percent of the popular vote this summer.
Chuck Baldwin did even worse. He came in fifth with 180,012 votes. Not bad—it’s nearly 40,000 more votes than Michael Peroutka won in 2004 (with Baldwin as his running mate) and over 80,000 votes better than Howard Phillips did in his last presidential campaign. It was also a strong enough showing to finish ahead of Cynthia McKinney. But it’s a lot less than the nearly 1.2 million votes Ron Paul won in just the Republican contest and isn’t even the best showing ever by a Constitution/U.S. Taxpayer’s Party presidential candidate. That distinction still belongs to Phillips in 1996, though Baldwin could have easily broken Phillips’ record if Keyes hadn’t snagged the Constitutionalists’ California ballot line.
Not that this would have made much of a difference. If there was ever a political climate in which candidates even moderately friendly to the dissident right could attract a noticeable level of support, this was it. Yet that manifestly did not happen. By contrast, Ralph Nader managed to come in third for the third straight presidential election even as Barack Obama kept liberal hopes alive. Nader improved on his vote totals from 2004, in no small part by making the California ballot this time, but it was still his second-worst showing in four third-party presidential campaigns. Yet even while finishing worse than Eugene McCarthy did as an independent candidate in 1976, Nader was able to get nearly as many votes as Barr and Baldwin combined.
It would be a mistake to assume that all these votes came from the Left. Nader’s reputation as a consumer advocate has given him an appeal across the political spectrum. Some view him as an acceptable protest vote, à la Ross Perot, without buying into much of his political platform. Others focus on his antiwar message rather than his overall leftism. Nader even has some conservative admirers.
But the bulk of Nader’s support no doubt came from the Left. It does not bode well for the Right that during a moment of opportunity, neither Barr nor Baldwin could outperform Nader well past his prime. Barr’s showing makes it more likely that the Libertarians will nominate someone from their radical caucus—think Mary Ruwart—in the next election (and even if they don’t, the “pragmatist” most likely to secure the nomination is Wayne Allyn Root). The Constitution Party has once again showed itself to be ill equipped to tap into broad conservative discontent with the Republican Party.
American Conservative senior Daniel McCarthy is persuasive when he argues that “organizing symbolically, committing hundreds of thousands of dollars and man-hours to third parties, is a waste of capital and talent that could be put to better use in Republican or Democratic primaries.” As he writes, “The difference between Ron Paul’s 1988 Libertarian campaign and his 2008 Republican bid illustrates the point. Forget the minors; take over the majors.” Even losing campaigns by a B.J. Lawson or a Bob Conley can do greater long-term good than vying to be the next Andre Marrou.
But when the majors prove resistant to takeover bids, minor parties can be a crucial safety valve and the only source of leverage those on the outside have. There are thousands of reasons, from Sarah Palin to the Paul-Barr feud and Barr-Baldwin split, that the real Right wasn’t able to exercise such leverage in 2008. That doesn’t make the failure any less disappointing—or any more excusable.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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