May 12, 2008 11:14 p.m.

Bob Barr, who we first met as one of the nuttiest of the mid-1990s Republican Revolution nutbars, has over the last decade refashioned himself as a fairly consistent supporter of embattled civil liberties and opponent of unbridled executive power. And today he announced his bid to be the presidential nominee of the Libertarian party, which will choose its standard-bearer at its national convention starting on May 22nd. (Libertarian muckety-mucks consider Barr the frontrunner for the nod.)

Normally these third party candidacies don’t amount to anything. And I don’t expect this one to either. But on this one … maybe.

Barr is enough of a media darling that if he runs he’ll get a lot of free media. And there’s enough weirdness going on in the Republican party right now that I could imagine a few scenarios where he’d draw non-trivial numbers away from McCain. As always in these cases the place to look isn’t in aggregate national numbers but in particular states where a drawing off a few points in one direction could make a state competitive where it otherwise wouldn’t be.

At first glance you might think Barr could hurt McCain in the South. Some people have this idea that by spurring massive rates of voter turnout among African-Americans Obama could put some Deep South states into play. But this has never made sense to me. States like Mississippi and Alabama have big African-American minorities. But short of heroic levels of voter turnout, there just aren’t enough Democrats in these states to win one of them. Certainly there aren’t enough African-Americans to do it on their own. But perhaps if Barr could pull some Republicans away from McCain, some of these states could be in play?

Not likely. The regional and ideological calculus doesn’t add up. One of the GOP base’s biggest complaints about McCain is his purportedly insufficient GOP hackdom. Barr doesn’t really do any better than McCain on that score. In fact, he’s probably less hackish than McCain. So that won’t be a good contrast. And in the South the Republican party is really about cultural traditionalism, race and war. McCain’s got war covered; and Barr’s against the Iraq War. So that doesn’t play. And his civil libertarianism probably doesn’t play well with cultural revanchists. (Barr was a pretty big culture warrior in the 90s. But I get the feeling that that’s been overshadowed by his civil libertarianism. And regardless he’d probably need to keep it under wraps to secure the Libertarian party nod.) So at the end of the day it’s really pretty rough sailing for Barr down South — notwithstanding that he made his political career in Georgia.

The anti-war, small-l libertarian stance is generally assumed to be more attractive in the West. And this raises some interesting possibilities since it’s in the West that Obama’s strength as a general election candidate has been most evident. As I explained earlier, if you draw a line from Michigan west to the southern tip of Nevada, it’s in the states above that line where Obama is outperforming Hillary Clinton and putting some traditionally Republican states into play. And a lot of those states are also ones where libertarian politics, if not Libertarian party candidates, have traditionally faired well. So I wonder if Barr’s candidacy could potentially have the net effect of adding to Obama’s traction in those states.

Finally, there’s the anti-war factor. Civil liberties is pretty abstract for most people. But the Iraq War isn’t. So a lot of Barr’s drawing power will be a test of just how much opposition to the Iraq War there is in the Republican party. How many Republicans are there out there who just won’t accept McCain’s Iraq forever position but can’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat? And how many of them could Barr sop up?

I’m curious to hear other people’s views on this. Like I said, third party candidates seldom amount to anything significant in a presidential contest. But Barr’s media celebrity and the state of the GOP leave some chance of this one breaking the mold. So let me know your thoughts.

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