Could Third-Party Candidates Be Spoilers?

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(L or R:)Brendan Smialowski and Brendan Hoffman / Getty

Independent presidential hopeful Ralph Nader and former U.S. Representative and Libertarian presidential hopeful Bob Barr

What started out as a season of unusual opportunity for third-party candidates is coming to a dispiriting close.

Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr, who polled as high as 6% nationally over the summer, is now polling around 1%, according to Pew Research's final pre-election poll. Ralph Nader, running as an independent in his second election since he may have tipped the balance for George W. Bush in Florida in 2000, is doing no better. Ron Paul, who was once the country's most luminous outsider candidate, will be sitting at home in Lake Jackson, Texas, watching the election and "keeping it very low-key," according to his spokeswoman. Despite having raised millions of dollars and generated tremendous enthusiasm for his staunchly libertarian platform, he decided to remain a Republican and eschew running as a third-party candidate.

Still, it doesn't take a broad national showing for Barr, Nader, Chuck Baldwin (the Constitution Party candidate, whom Paul eventually endorsed) or Cynthia McKinney (the Green Party candidate) to have an effect on the election. As Nader showed in 2000, just a few thousand votes in a close swing state could make the difference. "The Libertarian Party, whether they like it or not, is a feather," says Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University. "[But] if a scale is finely balanced, then a feather can make a difference."

One place Libertarians could make a difference is Barr's home state of Georgia, even though he's polling around just 1%-2% there. "I feel good about Georgia," Barr told me after a campaign event in Savannah on Monday. The former Republican Congressman, who is on the ballot in 45 states, rattled off a list of other places where he's hoping to have a good showing: North Carolina, New Hampshire, Indiana, Colorado, Ohio. But none of those states have received the attention from Barr that Georgia has: he's spent the last days of the campaign there, culminating in a live-music thank-you party for volunteers and staff in Atlanta on Tuesday. It is a shrewd move, because if Obama somehow takes the red state from McCain (the Democrat trails by four points), Barr could claim he played a role in what would be the poster child for McCain's national defeat.

His aides, however, are downplaying the idea that Barr or his energetic running mate Wayne Allyn Root will affect the national election. "I don't know that we'll be a difference-maker anywhere," says Russ Verney, Barr's campaign manager. "I'm not sure it's going to be that close."

Nader is on the ballot in 45 states plus D.C. — more than he was in 2000 — but his best moment could come in Missouri, where polls show him garnering from 1% to 4% in the state that remains a toss-up between McCain and Obama.

But Matt Gonzalez, the ultra-progressive former public defender who almost became mayor of San Francisco in 2004 and is now Nader's running mate, insists that it's not about spoiling in one state or another. The real point of running, he argues, is to highlight electoral reform. "If we're going to fix the problems of the 2000 election, it's not just enough to say the person with the most votes wins," he says. "The candidate should need to get 50%. You can't spoil a contest that's decided by 50%."

Not that third-party candidates are without ambitions: Gonzalez says it would be nice for Nader and him to get over a million votes on Tuesday, and it would be especially nice if they got more than the nearly 2.9 million votes Nader got in 2000. Still, Gonzalez, who was a member of the Green Party before running as an independent with Nader, isn't optimistic about third parties in general. It's one thing to not win many votes in a national election, where third parties are handicapped by a lack of fund-raising (except for self-funders like Ross Perot) and frozen out of the debates and the national news coverage. But the parties should be doing more on a grass-roots level. "You gotta get somebody into Congress," he says, and none of the modern third parties seem able to do that consistently.

Feeling so marginalized, the third parties have resorted to some measure of gimmickry to get any attention at all. Nader set a Guinness world record for most campaign speeches in separate places in one day (21) and has promised a "one-word answer" press conference after the election. Barr auctioned off a shotgun to raise funds. And though it's not exactly gimmickry, one of the defining features of Barr's campaign has been its litigiousness: ballot-access lawsuits in six states (they've lost three; the other three are pending) and a seventh lawsuit, in Texas, that sought to throw Obama and McCain off the ballot on a technicality.

Given the current political environment, third parties really should have had a better year. After all, many of the things Americans find most objectionable about the past eight years, from the first authorization to go to war in Iraq to the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, are by-products of the two-party system. To third parties, bipartisanship looks a lot like collusion. And certainly on at least a few key issues, from immigration reform to support for Israel, the two candidates' positions are not that dissimilar.

Drake's Goldford says that third parties have gotten more than 5% nationwide in only 13 presidential elections since 1832. But their value is real, inasmuch as they often channel some genuine discontent that the major parties then end up having to address. "Third parties are like that carbon-monoxide detector in the hallway," he says. "They start beeping because there's something going on that the major parties didn't notice."

So will the parties of "McBama" (as Nader is fond of saying) listen? Maybe. As Goldford points out, the GOP absorbed George Wallace's Southern-rights issues after his strong American Independent Party showing in '68. And the Republicans adopted elements of Perot's focus on rising deficits in the '90s. But Barr is skeptical: "The Republican Party is so tone-deaf right now that I don't really think it will have an impact," he says.

And the fact that no one is listening to them only makes their quixotic journeys that much more frustrating. So it's understandable that there seems to be some measure of relief that they have come to the end of the road. Gonzalez says he's going to drop by the Nader office in Berkeley, Calif., on Tuesday and maybe do a little radio. But by eveningtime, he'll be back to being a civilian. "I'll probably just spend some time at home with friends," he says, "just getting back to my life, you know?"

(See the screwups of Campaign '08.)

(See pictures of 60 years of election-night drama here.)