As delegates streamed into St. Paul’s Xcel Center on the first day of this summer’s Republican National Convention, hundreds of political activists were taking their seats in a cavernous community center just a few miles away.
Energized by Ron Paul’s unlikely candidacy in the GOP primary, these supporters were there to learn about the power of third party politics.
But this year, John McCain may have gotten lucky — Paul never pulled the trigger on a third-party candidacy.
The Texas congressman, an internet fundraising phenom, resisted supporters' suggestions to run after McCain snagged the nomination. While the decision saved McCain from a potentially devitalizing siphon of supporters and fundraising cash, Paul flatly refused to endorse him.
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The torch of star power that he unassumingly wielded was never passed to a viable recipient.
Paul's post-primary legacy
He endorsed little-known Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin without fanfare, and Libertarian candidate Bob Barr was not a speaker at Paul’s “Rally for the Republic” in Minneapolis.
Their hero out of the running, fervent Paulites were instead encouraged to set their sights on potential local and down ballot slots.
With Paul’s name placed in contention only in two states — Louisiana and Montana — most Americans will likely see the names of just a handful of under-funded candidates next to McCain’s and Obama’s on their Election Day ballots.
Barr, a mustachioed former congressman perhaps most famous for his strident call for Bill Clinton’s impeachment, is on the presidential ballot in 45 states. Voters in 32 states are being offered the choice of Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney.
And the name of independent candidate Ralph Nader, who irked Democrats eight years ago when his 2.7 percent take in the presidential race was said to have gouged Al Gore’s support, will appear on 46 state ballots.
The Nader effect
History, along with Federal Election Commission filings, indicates that Nader is unlikely to have a resounding effect again in 2008.
In 2000, Nader — then running on the Green Party ticket — raised $8 million, twice the amount he’s raised this cycle.
Video: Nader: 'I'm not afraid to keep losing' In 2004, he garnered only 0.3 percent of the national vote when he ran as an independent. Barr has raised just over a million dollars and has burned through almost all of it to cover campaign expenses. McKinney has raised one-fifth of that amount.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 2 percent of voters nationwide selected “other” when asked about their preference in the presidential race.
But, despite the low chances of a measurable impact by a third party candidate in the national presidential race, observers note that one of these little-known hopefuls could help push McCain or Obama ahead by a nose in a potential photo finish in a few hotly contested battleground states.
Barr, for example, is often cited as a possible spoiler in his home state of Georgia, site of the candidate’s congressional loss in 2002 after district retracing.
The latest InsiderAdvantage survey of Georgia voters shows Barr polling at only one percent.
But recent presidential polls in Georgia put the Obama-McCain contest between a one and eight-point race. Could Barr’s percentage-point make a difference in a nail-biter between the two major party candidates?
Barr, whose platform eschews spending and favors conservative social values, likely won’t drain substantial support from Obama. So, a good showing from him in the Peach State would probably hurt McCain, if at all.
(It’s important to note that the outcome of the general election as a whole is also unlikely to hinge on the perennially red-leaning state).
On the left side of the ideological spectrum, McKinney — also from Georgia — and Nader are not on the state’s ballot.
Ironically, it may be Montana, one of two states where Paul was placed on the ballot by supporters, where a third-party presence makes a difference.
A recently released Montana State University-Billings poll showed Obama leading McCain in the red-leaning state by a margin of 48 to 44 percent, with Paul garnering four percent.
The most unwilling participant in the Montana race? Paul himself, who has not campaigned in the state and has also requested to have his name removed from the ballot.