Spoiled? Ralph Nader's Campaign and the Fateful Election of 2000
The conventional political wisdom about the 2000 presidential election is that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is largely responsible for the defeat of Al Gore. At first glance, the accusation appears to be true.
Although Gore won the popular vote over Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, he narrowly lost the Electoral College. Because of our archaic and anti-democratic winner-take-all presidential system, the candidate who carries a state either by a majority or plurality of votes, no matter how close the vote, wins that state's entire electoral votes. Nationwide, Ralph Nader's nearly three million votes were generally thought to have come at the expense of Gore. In Florida, for example, Nader's 98,000 votes left Gore only several hundred votes behind Bush, with over six million votes cast statewide. Gore narrowly lost New Hampshire to Bush, 47 percent to 48 percent. Nader's New Hampshire vote was 22,000, about 4 percent of the statewide total, significantly more than Gore's margin of defeat.
Even before the November election, many liberals within the Democratic Party carried out a vituperative, polemical campaign against the Green Party, and targeted Nader personally. In a widely circulated public letter, "To Ralph or not to Ralph," a group of prominent intellectuals, including Nobel laureate and novelist Toni Morrison, feminist Gloria Steinem, journalist John B. Judis, and Princeton scholar Sean Wilentz, denounced Nader and those who had endorsed him. They attacked Nader's call to reduce U.S. aid to Israel as "irresponsible" and "inflammatory." "Nader and his supporters" were accused of "Orwellian utterances," and given to "disingenuous claims about a 'risk-free' Nader vote in places where Gore or Bush are strong." Nader's brand of "sectarianism had reaped nothing but catastrophe for liberal and progressive politics."
Days following Gore's narrow defeat, writer Eric Alterman in The Nation all but buried Nader politically. "An honest Nader campaign slogan might have read, 'Vote your conscience and lose your union . . . or your reproductive freedom,'" Alterman bitterly declared. Nader's three million popular votes were dismissed as "pathetic," and his campaign described as "infantile" and a "quixotic quest to elect a reactionary Republican." Alterman warned that the "die-hard Naderites" should anticipate "an ugly period of payback. Democrats will no longer return (Nader's) calls. Funders will tell him to take a hike."
Let's set the record straight. There's no evidence that Nader is responsible for Gore's defeat.
First, look carefully at the election results, state by state. Nader received most of his votes in states that were not competitive -- that is, where either Gore or Bush received at least nine percentage points more than their opponent. Nader's vote was in most cases much less than the margin between Gore or Bush. For example, Nader's 375,000 votes total in California, was significantly less than the comfortable 1.2 million vote margin received by Gore over Bush statewide. In New York, Nader's 223,000 votes could have all been given to George W. Bush, and Gore still would have easily carried the state by more than one million votes. In the majority of states where Nader's overall vote exceeded his national average -- including Alaska where he won 10 percent, Vermont (7 percent), Hawaii (6 percent), Maine (6 percent), Rhode Island (6 percent), Massachusetts (6 percent), Utah (5 percent), and Colorado (5 percent) -- the elections were not in doubt.
Let's set the record straight. There is no evidence that Nader is responsible for Gore's defeat.
Gore narrowly managed to carry several states, such as Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, where the Nader vote was larger than Gore's final margin of victory over Bush. But Gore also lost several states he should have carried had he devoted more time and resources, such as Arizona and Nevada, and where the Nader vote was insignificant.
What a close reading of voting statistics does show, however, is that Al Gore is largely responsible for his own defeat.
Al Gore had been elected and re-elected to both the House and Senate from Tennessee. His father had also served for decades in the Senate. Nevertheless, he failed to carry his home state, 47 percent to Bush's 51 percent. Nader's 20,000 votes in Tennessee would not have made any difference. The same story happened in Bill Clinton's Arkansas, which Gore lost to Bush, 46 to 51 percent. Nader's one percent in Arkansas didn't affect the outcome. West Virginia is so Democratic that Republican presidential candidates have carried the state only three times in the previous half century. Nevertheless, Gore managed to lose West Virginia by five percentage points to Bush. Nader's 10,000 votes in West Virginia were well short of the margin of difference between Bush and Gore. Had Gore carried either his own home state, or even West Virginia, he would be president today.
Gore's statewide vote totals consistently lagged behind those of Democratic candidates in gubernatorial and Senate races. In Georgia, for example, Gore's statewide vote of 43 percent in the presidential race was significantly less than Democratic Senate candidate Zell Miller, who won 57 percent. In Connecticut, Gore trailed Democratic Senate candidate Joe Lieberman, 56 percent vs. 63 percent. In Wisconsin, Gore's 48 percent was less than the 62 percent Democratic Senator Herbert Kohl received in his successful re-election bid.
Frightened liberals, white and black alike, should stop blaming Nader, and begin to ask some hard questions about the serious shortcomings of Gore's campaign. Let's face it, the economic expansion in the mid-to-late 1990s generated unprecedented prosperity for most Americans. Gore's opponent was obviously stupid and had little political experience. Gore should have won in a landslide. Why didn't he?
Of the many mistakes Gore made, I would say that three factors were among the most devastating. As early as the Democratic primaries last winter, Gore did everything possible to distance himself from Bill Clinton, a president whose policies had a 60 percent approval rating among voters. Worse yet, Gore didn't solicit Clinton's political advice during the campaign. Whatever one thinks about Clinton personally, the fact remains that he is the only Democrat to have been elected president to two full terms since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clinton remains extremely popular with core Democratic constituencies. Had Gore utilized Clinton selectively, in key states where voter turnout is critical, he probably would have won.
Second, Gore never spoke directly to Nader's constituency, addressing their issues. Gore personally tried to ignore or dismiss Nader, and used scare tactics to frighten liberals into voting for him. These tactics partially worked. As many as five to seven million voters who were sympathetic to Nader ended up voting for Gore or staying home on election day. But in the end, three million progressives could not find enough reason to support the pro-death penalty, pro-globalization, pro-corporate-power poster boy of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Finally, Gore's defeat represents the bankruptcy and failure of the "New Democrat" strategy, with its legislative compromises with the Far Right. Gore possessed no progressive core values. He was prepared to govern the country using focus groups and opinion polls, rather than making policy decisions based on his constituents' real interests. At the political moment of truth in Florida, where Republicans were actively disenfranchising thousands of black voters, Gore was unwilling to speak honestly about rampant racial profiling at the ballot box. If Gore really wants to blame somebody for his defeat, he should look in a mirror.
Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science at Columbia University and founding Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. He is also a prominent lecturer and author. More information on Professor Manning is available at his faculty homepage.
A new debate has begun on whether Nader, or another Green, should run in 2004:
comment on this article >
back to top ^