Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said something peculiar last week. From the Billings Gazette :
HELENA - While defending Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's record, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Tuesday that Montana voters whose main issue is guns might consider voting for Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr instead of Obama or Republican John McCain.
"If guns are your primary issue, you're probably not going to like either of these guys," Schweitzer said during an telephone press conference put on by the Obama campaign.
Normally, Democratic governors don't suggest voting for anyone other than the Democrat. Schweitzer simply may have been speaking honestly, but this could also have been a savvy tactical move.
Montana has a lot of nominal Republicans with libertarian inclinations. Just look at Ron Paul's top states in the Republican primaries and caucuses (numbers from CNN.com).
State Paul %
North Dakota 21%
South Dakota 17%
New Mexico 14%
Paul supporters are possible Bob Barr supporters -- the two agree on a lot of things, including guns. Schweitzer's calculus may be that Obama can't get to 50% in Montana, but he can win if enough Republican votes go to Barr. Even if Schweitzer wasn't thinking that, it's a possibility worth considering.
As you can see from the Paul figures, Barr could have an impact in the West. That includes Nevada (Barr's running mate is a Vegas sports handicapper) and New Mexico, two key swing states. It also includes the traditionally Republican Western states that Obama is trying to put into play -- Montana, Alaska and North Dakota. It will be interesting to see whether Barr tries to inflate his national vote total, which would mean campaigning in big cities, or if he focuses on doing as well as possible in the sympathetic states in the West.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that Barr can help Obama. Despite being close to Barr, it doesn't sound as though Paul will endorse him. Barr is mired in the low single digits in national polls. Plus, some voters, including former Paul supporters, are probably deciding between Obama and Barr, not McCain and Barr. Obama and Barr are, after all, the two candidates with similar views on Iraq and civil liberties.
Barr also presents a puzzle for pollsters. In 2004, polls greatly overstated support for Ralph Nader. As a result, pollsters have been leery of including third-party candidates this year. Still, I'd love to see a few Western polls with Barr included, just to see whether he hurts Obama or McCain.
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