Page last updated at 11:17 GMT, Tuesday, 15 July 2008 12:17 UK

Bob Barr and the Nader effect

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Washington

John McCain and Barack Obama are not the only candidates running for the White House this year.

They will be joined on the ballot by a number of minor party contenders, the most prominent of whom will be Ralph Nader, running this time as an independent, and Bob Barr, of the Libertarian Party.

Ralph Nader (L) and Bob Barr (R)
Ralph Nader (L) isn't likely to spring a surprise in 2008, but Bob Barr could

It's unlikely that even they themselves expect to be sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office once the election is over.

So, with little chance of taking more than a tiny fraction of the popular vote, why are these political Davids preparing to do battle against the Goliaths of the Democratic and Republican parties?

Ralph Nader produced strong evidence in 2000 that third-party candidates can have a big impact on the outcome of an election.

Running as the Green Party candidate, Mr Nader took just 2.74% of the nationwide vote - but in Florida he won 97,000 votes, while Democratic candidate Al Gore lost the state (and therefore the election) to George Bush by just 537 votes.

Ever since, Democrats have accused Mr Nader and his supporters of "handing victory to George W Bush".

Pet issues

Mr Nader maintains that the voters were free to choose whichever candidate they wanted - and that Mr Gore should have paid more attention to environmental issues if he wanted to win over Green Party voters.

Mr Nader's crucial role in the 2000 election certainly put his pet issues in the spotlight.

An election worker examines a ballot-paper during the Florida recount in 2000 (File picture)
The Florida recount in 2000 focused the media's attention on Mr Nader

Indeed, this is one of the key reasons why candidates with little chance of victory enter the race - they want to get publicity for their chosen cause, force the major parties to adopt some of their policies, and punish them at the polls if they do not.

This time round, Mr Nader is not expected to make such an impact.

But Bob Barr, for the Libertarians, is hoping to follow in Mr Nader's footsteps - and he could do to the Republicans what Mr Nader did to the Democrats in 2000.

Mr Barr is a former Republican congressman, who broke with the party after 9/11, in protest at what he saw as an increasing number of attacks on civil liberties from the Republican White House.

He went on to become a prominent opponent of the Iraq War and began voicing opposition to a number of his former party's more socially-conservative policies.

Air war

With the mood of the country now turning against the war - and the Republican Party brand - it's possible Mr Barr could pick up a number of anti-war voters who are disaffected with the Republican Party, but who still baulk at the idea of voting for a Democrat.

As a consequence, Mr Barr could eat into John McCain's support base, especially in Georgia (Mr Barr's home state) and in north-western states with a strong libertarian streak, such as Montana and Alaska.

If Obama is within a few points of winning [Montana or Alaska] come November, then he'll almost certainly be in position to score a sweeping electoral college route, no matter what effect Barr has

Steve Kornacki, New York Observer

In fact, if Mr Barr manages to pick up enough alienated Republicans, and if Mr Obama succeeds in rallying African-Americans, then Georgia could even flip into the Democratic column, just as Mr Nader's ability to woo Floridian Democrats allowed George Bush to win the Sunshine State in 2000.

So Mr Barr could have an impact in certain states - but it's debatable how decisive his role would be.

For Mr Obama to be doing well enough to be in a position to take Georgia with Mr Barr's help, the electoral maths suggests that he would already be beating John McCain by a wide margin - the election would already be his.

The same applies to Montana or Alaska, according to Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer. "If Obama is within a few points of winning either state come November, then he'll almost certainly be in position to score a sweeping electoral college route, no matter what effect Barr has," he writes.

Nonetheless, Mr Barr and Mr Nader will certainly give the mainstream candidates a few headaches and force them to spend money in places where they would rather not have to.

Most importantly for these passionate campaigners, the media will be forced to pay attention to the issues that they are espousing.

And they will have succeeded in winning what for them will be the most important battle - the fight for airtime.

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