Bob Barr entered the presidential race last week as a Libertarian, in time for that party’s nominating convention (which starts Thursday), and while the former Republican congressman from Georgia isn’t going to become president, his run is no joke. Barr might well inherit the sizable support garnered by Rep. Ron Paul during his own run for the Republican nomination — and leave McCain sputtering the sorts of epithets usually uttered by Democrats talking about Ralph Nader.
Though Barr’s promises to drastically shrink government spending, begin withdrawing from Iraq and protect civil liberties will undoubtedly appeal to capital-L Libertarians, there’s little evidence that he has much of a national following. Reporters covering his announcement at the National Press Club noted that no Libertarian candidate has ever garnered more than 1 million votes and that Barr’s most recent high-profile media appearance was a joke played on him in the "Borat" movie. But he could still seriously siphon votes from McCain in the fall — not because Barr is such a compelling candidate, but because he could become the vehicle for the many disaffected Republicans gathered under Paul’s flag. Consider the following facts:
More than a million votes have been cast for Paul, about 5 percent of the total cast in Republican primaries so far.
Paul’s activists are swarming local Republican party committees and conventions, quietly capturing or lining up delegates in states such as Alaska, Missouri, Minnesota, Florida, Texas and Washington.
And on the Web, the Paul movement — which, astonishingly, generated enough grassroots support to make him the top Republican presidential money-raiser in the fourth quarter of 2007 — is still going strong. His Web site is getting about 50,000 unique visitors per week, compared to 90,000 for McCain, according to data marketing company Compete.com. (The two Democratic candidates’ combined traffic is about six times higher.) On "Google, people are searching for the term Ron Paul" almost as often as "John McCain." And Paul’s new book, "The Revolution: A Manifesto," which has been topping Amazon’s sales chart for weeks, hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list today.
Clearly, one sizable chunk of the Republican base — small-government types who also oppose the Iraq war — hasn’t reconciled itself to voting for McCain. In Minneapolis, at the Republican National Convention, Paul may have a couple dozen delegates and enough street presence to spoil McCain’s show. These days, all it takes is one person with a Web-enabled mobile phone to put live video on the Internet, and Paul’s fans have already shown how good they are at using the Web to spread messages and keep their movement going. So even if the Republicans manage to keep Paul himself off the stage at the convention, his voice will still be heard. If Barr manages to capture the attention of Paul’s base, it could spell real danger for McCain.
Of course, this grassroots energy could fade by November. But consider some third-party-candidate history from 2000. While everyone has fixated on whether Ralph Nader cost Al Gore Florida, TV commentator Patrick Buchanan, running on the Reform Party banner, got enough votes in Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin to tip them out of George W. Bush‘s hands. Ron Paul may not be on the ballot this November, but his sizable grassroots movement will probably still be looking for a champion. Bob Barr won’t be president, but he could still gore McCain.
Micah L. Sifry is author of "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America" and editor of techPresident.com, which tracks how the candidates are using the Web.
This commentary first appeared in the Washington Post Outlook section and is reprinted with permission.