Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Right Idea, Wrong Target

Found this CBS story today about a "third party threat" to President Bush from the Libertarian Party. It's good to see the LP get some attention -- the article talks with LP presidential candidates Aaron Russo and Gary Nolan -- but the fundamental idea in the article is silly and misplaced.

The article is at pains to note that Bush's re-election team is not at all worried about a third-party threat, and the quotes from some political experts are split as well.

I think the bigger threat is to Democrat John Kerry from independent Ralph Nader. Nader's positions aren't that fundamentally different from Kerry's, just more to the Left. There were plenty of Democrats during the primary who were embracing fire-brand radical Howard Dean and espousing an approach that is closer to Nader than Kerry. They can still be heard grumbling out there, wishing Kerry were less "I'm not Bush."

If you look at polling numbers, since January Nader has run a consistent 5% in polls where he's listed as a choice. Some polls have him at a slightly lower 3%, but the 5% number is more frequent.

Compare to the Libertarians and their relationship to the Republicans. Libertarianism is incompatible with Republicanism. The party has a deserved reputation as "pro-drug, pro-libertinism" and is on the record as offically against the War on Terror and in favor of complete and immediate withdrawal. Very few Republicans dissatisfied with Bush's big-spending, big-government ways will find that appealing. You just can't find that many anti-war Republicans, either. (Not that they don't exist, but the Democrats have a loud and sizable anti-war contingent.)

No polls are tracking Libertarian numbers, either, and for a good reason. The party peaked several election cycles back at 5% and has been drifting downward ever since. Reform took a good bit of their thunder during the Clinton years and now they poll somewhere south of 2%. Libertarianism has been gaining in appeal in the past few years (something I rejoice in and am glad to welcome), but the offical party's hard-core philosophical purists and political absolutists continue to scare away likely sympathetic voters. The Party just hasn't learned gradualism as a strategy yet. I don't think it ever will. Whatever growth the Party experiences will be in spite of its efforts.

So, no, I don't think those dissatisfied with Bush will abandon him. I have heard talk of protest votes, but these folks are pretty careful to make sure it only happens in those states that are comfortably Republican, to prevent "giving" the election to Kerry. There are wide grumblings and noticeable anger at Bush, but I think their fear of Kerry is strong. The Republican leadership doesn't seem so concerned. But the Democratic leadership is very concerned about Nader's threat. And the folks who might vote for him seem to me to be far less worried about handing the election to Bush than their antipathy to Kerry's pretend centrism and "like Bush but different, sorta" image.

I'll be following the Libertarians' progress, but I don't think Bush has a whole lot to be worried about. Now, post-election I think it becomes a different story. And I will note that since this past weekend, there are stories coming from Washington that Bush is going to be making major changes both in Iraq and on the home front. So he appears to be at least aware of the problem.

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