Nader Elected Bush: Why We Shouldn't Forget
Polls show that many Bernie Sanders voters say they will withhold their support for Hillary Clinton, and that’s exactly how likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein wants it. She is tailoring her rhetoric to woo their votes, and in the process is rejecting claims that her campaign will be a “spoiler” candidacy, splitting the left and electing Donald Trump.
Memories of Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green candidacy are never too far away for older Democratic voters, but apparently this is not true for legions of youthful Sanders supporters, some of whom were in diapers at the time. So Stein is re-litigating the case, arguing that Nader deserves no blame for George W. Bush becoming president.
“The Supreme Court stopped the vote count, and Gore was just rolled over. … Nobody else created that loss,” Stein told The Humanist Report podcast. “Spoiler argument leaves out many D's voted for greater evil in '00. In '08 the lesser evil succeeded & still gave us much of what we feared,” Stein tweeted last week.
Stein is echoing the argument that Greens and Naderites have been quietly flogging for years. Google “Nader Florida” and you’ll quickly find a 2003 piece from the California Green Party, “Dispelling the Myth of Election 2000,” and a 2010 article from Disinfo, “Debunked: The Myth That Ralph Nader Cost Al Gore the 2000 Election.”
You might dismiss these musty defenses as meaningless yelps from bitter-enders. But take my word: Make a reference to Nader tipping the 2000 election, and you will get flooded on social media with angry defenses of Nader and finger-pointing at Gore.
So it is necessary to set the record straight. Even if you believe (as I do) that the Supreme Court improperly stopped a Florida recount that could well have given the race to Gore, the fact remains that without Nader on the ballot, there would have been no protracted recount spectacle and no Supreme Court involvement.
The official Florida tally gave Bush the win by 537 votes (48.847 percent to 48.838 percent), while Nader racked up 97,488 votes. The national exit poll asked respondents how they would vote in a two-person race between Bush and Gore. Political scientist Gerald Pomper summed up the results in a 2001 Political Science Quarterly overview: “approximately half (47 percent) of the Nader voters said they would choose Gore in a two-man race, a fifth (21 percent) would choose Bush, and a third (32 percent) would not vote. Applying these figures to the actual vote, Gore would have achieved a net gain of 26,000 votes in Florida, far more than needed to carry the state easily.”
But that is not quite the end of the story. Tony Schinella, a self-described Nader supporter, in a 2004 blog post cited by Disinfo, said we should not apply the national exit poll to Florida, but we instead should look at the Florida exit poll, which showed “the results as Bush 49 percent, Gore 47 percent” in a two-person race.
That looks like Bush would have slightly benefited in Florida from Nader’s absence, but that is not definitive either. The Florida exit poll had a sample size of 1,829. Nader’s support in Florida was 1.63 percent, meaning the pollsters only found approximately 30 Nader voters -- a sample too infinitesimal from which to extrapolate. (Consider that the official margin of victory was 0.009 percent. One voter in the Florida exit poll sample amounted to 0.055 percent, more than the margin.)
In fact, some argue that the national exit poll yielded too few Nader voters for the purposes of analysis. So in 2006, professors Michael C. Herron and Jeffrey B. Lewis conducted a granular “ballot-level” analysis of 3 million Florida ballots, because “ballot images directly reveal voting behavior in its most raw form, unmitigated by hindsight, social desirability, or other intervening affects.”
By looking at the partisan nature of the down-ballot choices made by Nader voters, the two scholars estimated that the Gore-Bush breakdown would have been about 60-40. That’s a slightly smaller ratio than found in the national exit poll, but nonetheless a clear lean toward Gore. Herron and Lewis note this means Nader voters were not all left-wing, yet they still conclude, “Nader spoiled Gore’s presidency only because the 2000 presidential race in Florida was unusually tight.”
The extreme tightness of the 2000 result makes it easy for Green sympathizers to cast blame elsewhere, such as Stein’s point that “many D's voted for greater evil in '00.” That’s a reference to the fact that 11 percent of Democrats voted for Bush, a number many Greens cite in arguing that Gore failed to hold on to his base. But this point ignores that there are conservative Democrats who routinely vote Republican at the presidential level. The same 11 percent snubbed John Kerry in 2004. Even Barack Obama lost 10 percent of Democrats en route to his seven-point 2008 victory.
Anything can be blamed, like Gore’s failure to win Tennessee (a cheap shot, since Gore had shed much of his Southern conservatism by 2000, making Tennessee a reach) or abandoning Ohio late in race, only to lose by a mere 3.5 percentage points.
Lots of factors can be blamed for such a paper-thin defeat. But the fact remains: One of them is Ralph Nader. If he had chosen not to embark on an obviously quixotic campaign, Al Gore would have been elected president.
Green supporters don’t want to face this truth, because of its implications for 2016. If 2000 was Gore’s fault, then a Donald Trump victory in 2016 should be seen as Hillary Clinton’s fault, not Jill Stein’s – or Bernie Sanders’ for indirectly driving voters to Stein or other third parties. The Democrats don’t own my vote, says the left-wing independent, and I won’t be forced into giving it to them.
But our presidential election system does force individuals to vote strategically -- or pay a political price. We have no runoff elections. The plurality winner gets all of a state’s Electoral College votes. If you refuse to accept that mathematical reality, and you deliberately vote without strategic consideration, you get more results like 2000.
Yes, it’s your vote. You can do with it what you like, based on what criteria you choose. If you think Trump is no worse than Clinton, then you should feel no obligation to vote for Clinton.
But don’t pretend your actions don’t have consequences. To willfully ignore the practical implications of your vote, and blame the candidate for the choice that you make, is an abdication of your responsibility as a voter.