Election Spoiler May Turn Out to Be a Libertarian

By JOSH GERSTEIN - New York Sun 5 October 2004

Just as in 2000, a third-party candidate could tip the balance in this year's presidential contest. This time, however, the spoiler may not be Ralph Nader, but a man whose name most voters have never heard.

The presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, Michael Badnarik, is on the ballot in 48 states. Mr. Nader, by contrast, is certain to be on the ballot in only 35 states, though he may pick up a few more by Election Day.

Democratic activists, many still fuming over Mr. Nader's perceived role in Vice President Gore's loss to President Bush four years ago, have brought court challenges to keep Mr. Nader off the ballot in places across the country.

By contrast, Republicans have said and done little about Mr. Badnarik, a 50-year-old computer programmer from Texas. Yet political strategists say he and the little-known Libertarians could affect the outcome in several battleground states crucial to Mr. Bush's re-election.

"The Libertarians are drawing somewhere between 1% and 3% - not big numbers, but in these very close races like the presidential contest, they could well be the margin of difference," a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Lawrence Jacobs, said. "They pose a genuine threat to be the kingmaker in several swing states."

Most national polls don't ask about Mr. Badnarik, but some state surveys do. Polls done by Rasmussen Reports for Mr. Badnarik's campaign showed him with 5% of the vote in New Mexico in August and with 3% support in Nevada last month.

Newspaper polls haven't shown him doing quite as well. They often peg his support at roughly 1%, but even that number could prove decisive. In 2000, Mr. Gore carried New Mexico by 366 votes, or 0.06%.

Mr. Jacobs, who has studied third-party campaigns, said Mr. Bush's policies appear to have driven some conservative Republicans into the Libertarian camp.

"They see the president as a federalizer. You've got the debt. You've got 'No Child Left Behind.' You've got the new Medicare entitlement. You've got the Patriot Act. And you've got the war," the professor said. "It's a very different approach to government than a small government Barry Goldwater."

Mr. Jacobs said he conducted a survey in June and July in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa to examine support for third-party candidates. It showed that the vast majority of Badnarik voters described themselves as either Republicans or independents.

Mr. Jacobs also said that Libertarian candidates in 2002 appeared to have tipped statewide races against the Republicans in Oregon and South Dakota.

The danger for the GOP, the professor said, is especially great this year in states where Mr. Nader is not on the ballot.

"It creates a drain on Republican voters that the Democrats aren't experiencing," Mr. Jacobs said.

The Bush-Cheney campaign did not respond to a call seeking comment for this story.

The communications director for the Badnarik campaign, Stephen Gordon, said he believes his candidate is drawing votes from both Mr. Bush and the Democratic nominee, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts.

Mr. Badnarik has run a modest number of television ads in Nevada and in New Mexico. Mr. Gordon said the antiwar ads appear to resonate with some voters, while the message about government overspending hits home with others.

"They negate each other if we run them in the same area," Mr. Gordon said. "We may pick up 10 Bush supporters and lose 10 Kerry supporters.

"In a younger community, a college town, they are a lot more likely to be concerned about the war," he continued. "In an older, established, suburban community, they're not as interested in that."

This year, none of the third-party candidates has come even close to the threshold of 15% that the self-styled Commission on Presidential Debates has set for inclusion in the presidential and vice-presidential debates. While Mr. Nader has done little but gripe about the snub this year, the Libertarians have gone to court.

Last Friday, the Arizona Libertarian Party filed suit against Arizona State University, which is the host of the final Bush-Kerry debate, scheduled for October 13. The group is arguing that the school's sponsorship of the debate amounts to an illegal use of state resources to advance the two major political parties.

The university has replied that the costs of the event are being borne by private donors.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last night showed Mr. Bush maintaining a small lead nationally following last week's debate. Mr. Bush had support in the poll from 51% of those deemed likely to vote, while Mr. Kerry had 46% and Mr. Nader had 1%.

A CBS News/New York Times poll, which was also released yesterday, had Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry tied at 47%, while Mr. Nader had 1%.

In those surveys, voters were not asked about Mr. Badnarik or other presidential candidates. That irks the Badnarik campaign. "Nader was included even though in a lot of key states he's not even on the ballot," Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Badnarik will be on the ballot in New York, although the Libertarian Party does not have a regular line on the ballot. A spokesman for the state elections board, Lee Daghlian, said Badnarik supporters delivered more than 15,000 valid voter signatures by an Aug. 17 deadline to place their man's name on the ballot.

A professor of political science at SUNY Cortland, Robert Spitzer, said third parties have made a difference in a number of statewide races in New York, but usually by giving their ballot line to a major-party candidate.

"There's certainly been cases in recent years where third parties in New York have had a pretty big effect on outcome," Mr. Spitzer said. He pointed to the 1994 gubernatorial contest, in which Governor Pataki won with votes from the Conservative and Tax Cut Now ballot lines.

Mr. Spitzer said he sees the earnest, small-government message of the Libertarians as limiting their appeal.

"They're hampered by their consistency," Mr. Spitzer said. "It's a point of view that most Americans simply don't agree with. Even conservative Republicans that want to constrain the modern welfare state are not running to do away with it."

Other observers say, however, that the Libertarians have new energy this year.

"So many people who lean Libertarian have been arguing for years that the only effective thing to do is to work in the Republican Party," the editor of Ballot Access News, Richard Winger, said. "All those people ... have been rebuffed by what Bush does in terms of deficit spending and starting the war."

Mr. Winger said the anti-war message has been adding momentum to Mr. Badnarik's campaign. "He's certainly more opposed to U.S. involvement in Iraq than Kerry," Mr. Winger said.

Several campaign strategists said the Libertarians seem to win more support in certain states in the Southwest and Midwest. They appear to do less well in urban centers.

"There is more of this natural 'Keep government off our backs' mentality out West," a New Mexico-based political analyst, Joseph Monahan, said.

Mr. Badnarik was nominated by the Libertarian Party in May at its convention in Atlanta. In 2000 and 2002,he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the House of Representatives. He is a technology specialist, who has worked at nuclear power plants and on the once-secret Stealth bomber program.

While predicting a relatively strong showing for Mr. Badnarik, Mr. Jacobs, the professor at the University of Minnesota, cautioned that some voters ultimately shy away at the last minute from third-party candidates. "No question about it," he said. "You get kind of cold feet going to the ballot box."

When The New York Sun conducted an unscientific survey of anti-war protesters during a major demonstration in the city in August, most participants said they planned to vote for Mr. Kerry. Several, however, spontaneously stated their support for Mr. Badnarik. They also complained that the survey mentioned only Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry, and Mr. Nader.

Mr. Badnarik has also made a concerted appeal for the votes of Muslims and of other Arab-Americans. Last week he attended the national convention of the American Muslim Alliance in Orlando. Mr. Badnarik accepted an award from the group and endorsed its complaints about government-backed discrimination against those of the Islamic faith.

"Muslims have borne the brunt of draconian government actions since 9/11," Mr. Badnarik told the group, according to a release from his campaign. "A plurality of American Muslims supported George Bush in 2000. Now they're looking outside the major-party club for candidates who support their rights."

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