2012 Presidential candidate Tom Knapp: Parting thoughts on the Barr campaign

Posted at Knapp2012.com

Brian Doherty asks “Where Did the Libertarian Party Go Wrong?” over at Reason. It’s not the first post-election critique of Bob Barr’s presidential campaign, nor will it be the last, but it’s an interesting one, and since it quotes me, I think I’ll go ahead and set my own thoughts down at greater length.

First, the quote: “In terms of vote totals, his failures put him firmly in the LP ‘usual’ pack. In terms of effect on the Libertarian Party, he probably set us back 20 years.”

I have to say that I’m already mellowing a bit from that initial take. How far the Barr campaign sets back the LP doesn’t have to be a function of the Barr campaign — the rest of us have something to say about it too. We can allow 2008 to cast a long shadow, or we can break in a different direction and leave 2008 behind.

For that matter, in terms of performance at the polls, Barr was not really a failure by LP standards. In terms of percentage of the vote, he performed in the middle of the LP presidential pack (4th place of 10 campaigns).

There was also a strategic decision on the campaign’s part to target “battleground” states in an attempt to “change” the election outcome, rather than to go after the “low-hanging fruit” of more votes in “safe” Democrat or Republican states where the voters wouldn’t be as worried about “costing” one major party or the other the election. That’s something I can’t fault the Barr campaign for. It was a judgment call they had to make. Michael Badnarik’s 2004 campaign made the same call in the same way, targeting New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin as potential “spoiler” opportunities. If 2008 hadn’t turned into a blowout, there was every chance that the Barr campaign’s strategy would have worked.

Some observers — among them, I believe, Ballot Access News publisher Richard Winger — believe that the LP and third parties in general will benefit in the long run from the Barr campaign’s ballot access litigation. If so, that’s a good thing and Barr should receive credit for it.

The failure from a Libertarian Party standpoint, in my view, is that Barr didn’t run a libertarian campaign. If the GOP nominated Barbara Boxer for president, or the Democrats picked Tom DeLay, the “base” of either party would consider that presidential campaign a failure regardless of how many votes the candidate picked up. Barr was a mismatch for the LP. He ran as a Dixiecrat “states rights” conservative, and in doing so he at least partially and temporarily re-branded the LP away from libertarianism and toward his own ideology to some as yet unknown extent.

Coke does not give its “salesman of the year” award to the guy who moves the most cases of Pepsi. The Pope does not canonize the woman who converts the most people to Buddhism. The LP’s designated sales manager for this year went out and sold something other than the LP’s product. That’s a failure in itself, and a failure to the extent that it creates an ongoing public misperception as to what the LP’s product is.

Now, back to those vote totals: Was 510,000 votes a “failure?” Above, I say that it wasn’t … by LP standards. But those aren’t the only applicable standards.

The standard set by Barr campaign manager Russ Verney from the stage at the LP’s 2008 national convention was raising $40 million and winning the election. I doubt that very many people believed it was really going to happen (or that Verney believed it himself), but when you hype numbers, you can expect those numbers to come back to haunt you.

At least as late as October (and possibly later), Barr running mate Wayne Allyn Root confidently predicted “1-3 million votes.” He did so on October 5th in the New York Times. That’s a hard number, and Root is a Las Vegas oddsmaker.

“Libertarian” Republican and sometimes Barr/Root booster Eric Dondero’s predictions swung wildly around numbers he cherry-picked from polls (while ignoring the history of actual LP vote totals on election day versus earlier poll numbers), but in August he hedged his bet to the low side and set a standard for “success”

[T]he media is completely ignoring the Libertarian yard stick for success: Beating Ed Clark. Libertarian Ed Clark’s campaign received 922,000 votes in 1980, 1.1%. It is the all-time benchmark for success for Libertarian Presidential campaigns. … The magic number for success for Bob Barr for President remains — 922,001.

Of course today, Dondero is in full-out backtrack mode, decrying the Doherty article and bitterly bitching that people should acknowledge the “success” of a campaign which fell far short of his own stated standard.

One of the curious elements of Dondero’s argument is that percentages are irrelevant — only raw vote totals matter. I disagree. Two votes is more than one vote, but whether or not two votes are better than one vote depends on how many people are voting. One vote out of two is damn good. Two votes out of two million isn’t.

In 1996, Harry Browne received 485,798 votes out of 96.2 million total votes cast.

In 2008, Bob Barr received about 510,000 votes out of 126.7 million votes cast.

Thirty million more voters, but only 24 thousand more votes. It’s impossible to believably spin that into any kind of great “success.”

A stray note on competence:

It’s impossible to tell how things might have come out had the Barr campaign been competently managed … but it’s reasonable to think, on the basis of casual observation, that it wasn’t. Needless ballot access problems, message ranging from “true conservative” to downright incoherence, five figures on an air conditioner for an office that was leased for five months, $18,000 in limo bills … the organization appeared dysfunctional.

Mike Ferguson is one of the most competent individuals I know. I say that because it’s true — nobody’s going to mistake us for best buddies. Given an environment of general competence, I suspect Ferguson would have been a very effective campaign operative, boosting Barr’s vote total everywhere he went. Instead, he seemed to get stuck spending most of the campaign hauling ass around the country and trying to unscrew other people’s screwups (for example, the West Virginia ballot access debacle).

As early as the LP’s Denver convention in June, I observed that Steve Gordon seemed to have already been moved to the campaign’s sidelines once Russ Verney took over as manager. Gordon denied it, but the impression remained. Frankly, I suspect that Gordon would have been a better pick for campaign manager than Verney, whose main claim to fame is that he managed to bring Ross Perot — a wildly popular public figure with effectively unlimited campaign funds and who at one point was polling toward victory — in at 20% in 1992. Gordon has the requisite nuts and bolts skills, and he was better positioned than Verney to get the LP’s supporters in the mood to work for the campaign’s success from the very beginning. Even setting aside later events, Verney’s presence at the nominating convention probably cost Barr votes, and cooled reception toward his nomination, by bolstering the campaign’s outsider/”Darth Vader” image.

But I could be wrong on those things. It’s happened before.

Hopefully, in 2012 Libertarians will think their presidential nomination selection through from the ground up — starting with the message they want to convey and then looking at which candidate conveys that message most effectively. Nothing wrong with hitching one’s wagon to a star, but only if the star is going to pull that wagon in the direction you want to go.

16 thoughts on “2012 Presidential candidate Tom Knapp: Parting thoughts on the Barr campaign

  1. JimDavidson

    I’m not impressed with Barr. He was a poor libertarian and proved to be a poor campaigner. He failed to do anything memorable and significant, except snub Ron Paul and stiff Angela O’Dell.

  2. Deran

    Nader and Baldwin are the only of the “major” minor candidates that ran competent campaigns, and even Nader couldn’t do much better than his “sort of” campaign in 1996, as far as vote totals.

    I was a big enthusiast for McKinney last summer, but then she dropped out in Sept, and sort of came back into the race in December of ’07, but from then on she never really worked it as hard as she could have.

    I’m also hopeful that McKinney, and some of the Naderites, will be key in building a new party.

  3. rdupuy

    Regardless of how one feels about Bob Barr, the fact is the Ron Paul problem has to be delt with.

    That Republican is a distraction to Libertarians everywhere, but especially the presidential candidate.

    No where did we mention Bob’s refusal to shave his moustache. Quite frankly if your goal is raw vote totals, we know the truth about the electorate…you look good, you do go for the so-called ‘low hanging fruit’.

    Had Bob done that, he could have been 2nd place in the vote totals.

    That wouldn’t make a big difference in the long run, but, maybe it would have been better to silence the critics.

    Mr. Knapp, I’m not convinced you should announce your candidacy this early. Clearly your website is unprofessional and unready.

    Some people will only visit it once, and not wait until…I can only say, I hope it gets a lot better later.

    All the criticism of Bob Barr is hard to accept from someone doing a far worse campaign. It’ll be easier to accept from someone doing a better job, not worse.

  4. Jeremy Young

    Knapp’s doing exactly what he needs to be doing right now, and that’s establishing himself as a candidate and getting his name out there. No LP delegate in his/her right mind is going to look at Knapp’s website four years before the convention, decide he’s not ready for primetime, and then refuse to look at it ever again and vote against him. He has plenty of time to get his campaign into shape, and I’m confident he’ll do that.

    I’m a big-government statist who doesn’t agree with Knapp on almost anything. The fact that he has a legitimate shot at my vote in four years says a lot about his chances, in my view. The man is integrity personified, and a far cry from both the liars who run in the two major parties and the attention hogs who’ve cropped up in third parties of late. He still has four years to earn my vote, as do Obama (whom I voted for this election) and the other third party candidates, but I’d say I’m very impressed by what I’ve seen so far.

  5. darolew

    Knapp needs to learn that JPEG artifacts are ugly. (I’m referring to his banner, of course.) The website banner for his congressional campaign had the same problem.

    Banners like that look like they were made in MS Paint. (MS Paint is notoriously bad with creating JPEG images — next time, save as a PNG or GIF instead.)

    Even better, find someone with some design experience who knows how to use Photoshop/Gimp and have them make a banner which isn’t so dull and bland. Centered, capital letter Times New Roman text is pretty bad from a design perspective…

  6. paulie cannoli Post author

    It looks fine to me, but I’m sure he probably won’t turn down any offer to help from a competent designer. At least, I certainly hope he won’t.

    I do think there is still plenty of time to work on things like that, though the earlier campaign operations improve, the better.

  7. G.E.

    Knapp needs to learn that JPEG artifacts are ugly. (I’m referring to his banner, of course.)

    That’s what I’ve been telling him.

    It looks fine to me, but I’m sure he probably won’t turn down any offer to help from a competent designer.

    I reworked his Congress graphic (nothing fancy), and he was very grateful, but the reason his banners look so bad is that he’s trying to conserve bandwidth.

  8. Thomas M. Sipos

    Some libertarians did not vote for Barr/Root because of Root, rather than because of Barr.

    I could have voted for Barr/Kubby. But Root on the ticket was a dealbreaker for me.

    So I wrote in Ron Paul.

  9. JimDavidson

    @3 “No where did we mention Bob’s refusal to shave his moustache….Had Bob done that, he could have been 2nd place in the vote totals.”

    I find myself both mystified and baffled.

  10. George Phillies


    The site looked well done.

    No matter what your web site looks like, there will be people saying it should be different. I did not catch any spelling or grammar issues, and did not expect to do so; those would be worth fixing.

    The more interesting question is whether you want to have a campaign blog–and it appears that what you have is a blog and not a site limited to your own material.


  11. paulie cannoli Post author

    @3 “No where did we mention Bob’s refusal to shave his moustache….Had Bob done that, he could have been 2nd place in the vote totals.”

    I find myself both mystified and baffled.

    It’s very simple, really. Most McCain voters wold have voted for Barr if it was not for that moustache. Everybody knows that!


  12. Thomas L. Knapp

    Web site detractors (and George),

    Yes, I know the web site looks like hell — it was thrown together in about 20 minutes because I decided I needed to announce when I did instead of when I had originally intended to.

    My initial campaign plan called for an announcement next April, and for certain things — putting together a nice web site, setting up a home studio for recording videos, etc. — to happen before that.

    Here’s the dilemma I face:

    I am running as a counterweight to e.g. Wayne Allyn Root and trying to persuade the party to a different direction. That’s not to say I won’t run hard as a general election candidate if nominated, but my goals for now are more about the choices the party will make in May of 2012 rather than about selling those choices to the public for November 2012. The earlier the party gets properly oriented, the better. I’d prefer to have as much of the ideological showdown as possible early.

    I had expected Root to wait awhile — at least until his new book was out — to announce his own campaign, but he’s already publicly treating it as a given that he’ll run.

    Infantry maxim: “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

    I pushed my announcement up by six months — and it shows — because I consider it more honest to just declare myself a candidate and go at it than to take potshots at my opponents as an alleged non-candidate when I know that I’m going to be a candidate.

    Any webmasters out there who are interested in volunteering, gimme a yell — kubby dot communications at gmail dot com. I can’t offer a paid position, at least yet, but that might change, if even only to some small monthly tech support retainer once a site is in place that I’m competent to fill with content. I’m pretty good with content. I suck at design.

    Tom Knapp

  13. G.E.

    Tom – I put together Scotty Boman’s Web site. When I asked you about getting some graphics for you, you gave me the bandwidth line.

  14. Thomas L. Knapp


    The current campaign web site is just an add-on to the hosting account I use for pretty much everything, and I do have to worry about bandwidth there.

    I expect to put the permanent campaign web site on its own server, or at least a robust hosting account on which no other sites will operate,, and to let a webmaster worry about things like “are we going to go down because the graphics are sucking bandwidth?”

    That’s probably 60-120 days from happening, because I announced earlier than I had planned to and before I got things done that I had intended to have done before announcing.

  15. RedPhillips

    Tom, there seems to be A LOT of heat between you and Dondero. Can I suggest a fund raiser for your campaign? You vs. Dondero in the Octagon. I would definitely pay to see that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *