|Bush's Third-Party Threat
NEW YORK, May 21, 2004
By David Paul Kuhn,
CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
While Democrats fret over the possibility of Ralph Nader causing them to
lose another election by stealing votes on the left, President Bush may
face an even greater third-party threat from the right wing. The
Libertarian Party nominee could cost Mr. Bush his job in 2004.
With conservatives upset over the ballooning size of the federal government
under a Republican White House and Congress - and a portion of the
political right having opposed the war in Iraq from the outset or else
dismayed at how it's being handled - the Libertarian nominee may do for
Democrats in 2004 what Nader did for Republicans in 2000.
It is a hypothesis not yet made in the mainstream media. But interviews
with third-party experts and activists across the country, as well as
recent political patterns, illustrate that there could be a conservative
rear-guard political attack against President Bush.
Libertarians will be on at least 49 state ballots, several more than the
most optimistic expectations of Nader. While Democrats rally around their
nominee, the base of the Republican Party is showing some signs of
"I think [the Bush campaign] should be concerned. I don't know how
concerned," said Don Devine, vice chairman of the American Conservative
Union and a longtime GOP insider. "They need to work on it and I think they
know they need to work on it."
Grover Norquist, president of the conservative group Americans for Tax
Reform, says "there is a strong strain of Libertarian in the Republican
Party." He agrees with Devine that the Republicans should be paying
attention to the Libertarian candidate, but says it is hard to gauge this
early if the nominee will siphon many votes from Mr. Bush.
"I don't expect it to happen but it's possible," Devine adds. "A smart
Republican campaign has to keep that in mind."
But so far, indications are that the Bush-Cheney campaign is not keeping it
in mind. A senior adviser to the campaign, who did no want his name used so
he could speak more frankly, said there was no concern in the campaign.
"None, none," the adviser emphasized. "[Mr. Bush is] as strong as Ronald
Regan was in 1984."
However, historians point out that Mr. Bush is no Mr. Reagan. The Cold War
had the effect of unifying the Republicans like little else. Even the
dramatic deficit increases of the time, largely due to defense spending,
were seen as necessary in the fight to end communism.
And President Reagan did not have an unstable occupation on his hands. Nor
did he face nearly as united a Democratic Party as exists today. The
result: some conservatives are questioning the voluminous spending for the
war in Iraq.
"There is some unrest, there is some uneasiness, there is some
unhappiness," said presidential historian Lee Edwards of the conservative
Heritage Foundation, regarding the political right today.
Edwards emphasized that this frustration is not as rampant as when former
President George H.W. Bush reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge.
Mr. Bush has recently made an increased effort to speak to conservative
groups and meet with conservative congressmen. Whether the efforts are
enough is unclear. But, Edwards added, the Bush-Cheney campaign should
still "watch out."
"The Libertarians will impact Republicans more than Nader will impact
Democrats," said Lawrence Jacobs, the director of the 2004 Elections
Project for the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and
possibly the nation's preeminent expert on third-party politics.
In the key battleground state of Wisconsin, the 2002 Libertarian
gubernatorial candidate Ed Thompson garnered about 185,000 votes, a
startling 10.5 percent. The new governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, won the state
by about 75,000 votes.
"I had the best showing of any Libertarian ever, except one candidate in
Alaska," said a proud Thompson, who is the maverick brother of former
Wisconsin governor and now Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. They are
against the war in Iraq, as well as deficits and big-government bills like
the recent Medicare legislation. They are against any form of gun control.
But they also support gay rights, abortion rights and less stringent drug
In the 2000 presidential election, Nader won 94,070 votes in Wisconsin. Al
Gore barely won the state, holding off Mr. Bush by just 5,708 votes.
"The [Libertarian nominee] could be every bit as threatening to the
Republicans as Nader is to the Democrats in Wisconsin," Thompson said. "But
I think to do that it is personality based."
The two personalities most likely to be nominated at next week's
Libertarian convention in Atlanta include Gary Nolan, a talk-radio host and
longtime Libertarian, and Aaron Russo, a successful Hollywood producer who
ran a strong gubernatorial campaign in Nevada in 1998.
"Their biggest chunk of vulnerable voters are the fiscal conservatives and
I know they are looking for a place to bail," Nolan said of the Bush campaign.
"What used to happen is we had to deal with a wasted vote for Republicans.
They'd say, 'Well I agree with you and I actually like you better than Bob
Dole or George Bush, but if I vote for you that's a vote less for Bush and
the Democrats are going to get in and they are going to spend like drunken
sailors,'" said Nolan, considered the favorite to win the nomination. "But
now Republicans are spending like drunken sailors."
In an opinion piece this week in the Chicago Sun-Times, conservative
columnist Robert Novak described President Bush's conservative base as
"bothered." A recent Zogby Poll also found that almost 20 percent of
Republicans still have not committed their vote to Mr. Bush.
"I think [fiscal conservatives] don't believe that [Mr. Bush] has really
done anything to restrain the growth of government," Novak said in an
interview. "We are talking about a very small number of people. It becomes
important only for [Mr. Bush] in a very close election where every vote
Democrats are as united as they have been in recent political history,
Novak said. "No question about it in my opinion." He agreed that Democrats
have heeded a lesson that Republicans have not, because they lost the
razor-tight election of 2000.
Senate and gubernatorial races from 1998 to 2002 indicate that Libertarians
have repeatedly swung elections in the Democrats' favor.
For example, in the 2002 governor's race in the swing state of Oregon,
Libertarian Tom Cox pulled in 57,760 votes to help Democrat Theodore
Kulongoski eke out a 35,000 vote win over Republican Kevin Mannix.
In the 1998 Nevada U.S. Senate race, Democrat Harry Reid won by 401 votes
over Republican John Ensign. Libertarian Michael Cloud earned 8,129 votes.
The question in this year's presidential race, where the country appears to
be split right down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, is: Can
any third-party candidate make a difference?
Exit polling and ballot totals show that if Ralph Nader had not been on the
ballot in 2000 in either New Hampshire or Florida, former Vice President Al
Gore would have won the election over Mr. Bush.
But is 2004 different?
"I believe many fewer will vote for Nader this time, though it still could
be enough to make the difference," said Charles Cook, editor of the
nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Nader's endorsement this year by the Reform Party and his efforts to work
with presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry has some political analysts
convinced that his support may be more equally distributed between the
right and left than in 2000.
Libertarians are expected to bring in mostly conservative votes.
"I may be very wrong but I would be absolutely stunned if [the
Libertarians] turned into anything of any consequence," said Cook.
Cook said this is because "the American people overwhelmingly believe that
there are big differences" between the major parties this year. But he also
pointed out "the race will be close."
In a close race, Libertarians have learned from Nader, it only takes one
state to change the course of the nation. Such influence translates to
political weight in Washington.
"I think there is no question the Bush campaign should be concerned," said
Libertarian candidate Russo, who placed a surprising second in 1998 in the
four-way Republican gubernatorial primary in Nevada.
In 2004, Nevada is considered one of 17 to 19 swing states. Russo thinks he
can overcome Nolan's veteran's advantage with delegates during the
Libertarian convention because of his political success and charisma. He
added that the bulk of support is "defiantly on the right" because of
"overspending and the war in Iraq."
Russo, whose films have won three Golden Globes, believes he can get a
million voters to contribute $100 each. Russo boasts that his Web site now
gets more traffic than Nader's. He says he has connected support, like
legendary actor Jack Nicholson, who did an ad campaign for him in 1998 but
has not, as of yet, endorsed Russo for president.
For Robert Novak, if Libertarians do not make their presence felt this
election and Mr. Bush's loses, the third-party will hold political weight
"I just had breakfast with a guy and we discussed that people are already
talking, as politicians do, about the what-ifs," said Novak. "Everybody
believes if Bush loses, the Republican Party will move to the left in '08,
to the Schwarzenegger and Giuliani strain, and that is where you really get
the possibility of a serious third-party movement."
İMMIV, CBS Broadcasting Inc.