Regardless of whether Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama wins Montana’s three electoral votes for the presidency, the margin of victory is likely to be narrow. Recent polls show the two candidates locked in a dead heat here, which opens the door for 2008 to be an election in which the outcome of the presidential race, in Montana anyway, is once again profoundly influenced by a third-party candidate.
It wouldn’t be the first time a third-party candidate had such an effect. The last Democrat to win Montana was Bill Clinton in 1992, when he eked out a 10,000-vote victory over George H.W. Bush. But in that race, Independent candidate Ross Perot, running to the right of Bush, received more than 107,000 votes. Had Perot not been in the race, and his votes gone to Bush, the Republican incumbent would have won the state handily.
While 2008 lacks a third-party candidate with the national recognition, campaign organization and financial resources of Perot, there will be several names on the Montana presidential ballot in November with the potential to siphon enough votes from the two mainstream candidates to turn the race on its head. In July, supporters of Ralph Nader collected nearly 7,000 signatures, enough to put him on the ballot as an Independent. Former Republican candidate Ron Paul is urging his supporters to vote for the Constitution Party’s Chuck Baldwin. And as recently as last week on CNN, Gov. Brian Schweitzer reiterated his suggestion that Montanans dissatisfied with the gun rights records of McCain and Obama could vote for Libertarian Bob Barr.
Consider that in Montana’s June 3 primary, Republican Ron Paul took 20,606 votes, well short of McCain’s 72,791, but still a sizeable chunk of Republican voters. An additional 2,333 Montanans voted for neither, choosing Republican “no preference.” Paul has since dropped out of the race, but according to David Hart, the former state coordinator for the Paul campaign, Paul supporters will not be migrating to McCain.
“If I had to put my bet on it, I’d say eight out of 10 Ron Paul supporters will vote for Baldwin or Bob Barr,” Hart said. “It’s not about party for these people, or myself, it’s about principle.”
Since Paul dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination, his supporters have proved an often-fractious addition to the state GOP, defeating a handful of incumbent Republican state lawmakers in primary elections and openly disdaining McCain. As of this writing, Hart and about 50 other Montana Ron Paul supporters planned to travel to the “Rally for the Republic” in Minneapolis, a three-day gathering, prior to the Republican National Convention, with such conservative headliners as Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the man considered the architect of modern conservatism, Grover Norquist and Paul.
Hart said training sessions at the “Republic” rally will show Paul supporters “how we can take back the Republican party from the neo-conservatives that have hijacked it over the last decade or so,” and he anticipates Paul’s event could draw a larger attendance than the RNC: “We’ll probably have more people show up at ours than they do at theirs.”
While Hart thinks there are likely to be a number of write-in votes for Ron Paul in November, he called such votes “wasted” and said when Paul attended the Montana GOP convention in June, he urged supporters to vote for Baldwin, a conservative radio talk show host and Baptist minister in Florida. Calls to the state chair of the Montana Constitution Party were not returned, and according to the Secretary of State’s office, there is a Sept. 5 deadline to put Baldwin’s name on the ballot.
Barr is also likely to take a portion of the Republican vote, according to Libertarian Party state chairman Mike Fellows.
“A lot of people are dissatisfied with McCain because he is not conservative enough,” Fellows said. “I think (Barr) will have an impact if everybody goes out and votes their conscience.”
With an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, Fellows said Barr beats the mainstream candidates on gun rights, and he is working on convincing the former Georgia congressman to visit Montana between now and November. As for the eternal third-party question of whether Barr could take enough votes from McCain to hand Montana to Obama, Fellows was undeterred.
“The Republicans like the fact of the free market, we need more competition, but when it comes to politics they throw that stuff out the window,” Fellows said. “If you’re a good candidate, you’ll get the votes and win the election.”
On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Nader supporters share the same frustration with the Democratic nominee, and face similar resentment from Obama supporters that if Nader gets enough votes he could hand a narrow victory to McCain in Montana – the same effect many Democrats believe Nader had on a national scale in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost to George Bush.
Kesa Bechard, state coordinator for the Nader campaign, said she encountered “terrible reactions” when she was collecting signatures in Missoula.
“I think people are just afraid to risk McCain winning,” Bechard said. “It’s very disappointing to me to see so many people entrenched in party politics that they won’t open their minds.”
Emily Przekwas, regional ballot access coordinator for Nader, believes Obama co-opted key elements of Nader’s previous campaigns – the “change” theme and grassroots organizing – and used them to succeed with a campaign more oriented to the political center than many Obama supporters realize.
“People are confused into voting for Obama (because) they think he is some sort of Ralph Nader,” Przekwas said. “(Obama) continually votes against progressive issues; he is not a progressive.”
But whether that distinction exists or not, James Lopach, chair of the political science department at the University of Montana, does not think Nader will play nearly the role in the state’s presidential election that the conservative third-party candidates will.
“I don’t think Democrats or Democratic leaders will waste their vote on Nader,” Lopach said. “I don’t see Nader running far to the left of Obama, but Barr can run significantly to the right of McCain.”
Lopach still believes McCain will win Montana, but he also observes the libertarian wing of the GOP as “a strong, discrete segment of the Montana electorate,” with the power to exert real leverage over the state’s political outcomes. And if Obama does find victory in Montana, he may owe a debt of gratitude to one of the third-party candidates on the ballot.
“A vote for Barr certainly helps Obama,” Lopach said.
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