Ralph Nader did not make George Bush president

It’s time to try to kill a certain meme that’s already going around, and which we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the coming months–that people voting for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election cost Al Gore the Presidency and handed it to George Bush. This will undoubtedly be used, as subtly as a mace, to guilt Bernie supporters to vote for Hillary. But the notion that what happened in Florida in 2000 provides a precedent for what people should do this year is fallacious, and here’s why.

First, yes, a lot went wrong in Florida. Nader had an impact – but then there’s the Pat Buchanan impact, which no one discusses any more. And the fact that the Bush family machine ran the state – remember Kathleen Harris? And then the crappy Supreme Court decision. Not to mention the reluctance of the Democrats to push their case more aggressively, as the Republicans did. It was a holy mess. For political junkies like me, it was also great fun, but obviously in terms of the real world it had disastrous effects.

But here’s the thing – it never should have gotten to that point. It got to that point because Gore needed those electoral votes because of the states he didn’t win that Bill Clinton did – including his home state of Tennessee. This is a state that the Clinton/Gore ticket comfortably carried twice. But Gore didn’t win it in 2000. You can probably thank Bill Clinton for that. Or you can come up with a more plausible reason why a state that for decades supported the Gore political dynasty suddenly decided to support a Bush instead. Whatever. You’re supposed to win your home state. The point is that those electoral votes would have given Gore the Presidency. In that event, Florida becomes irrelevant.

Ralph Nader didn’t cost Al Gore the election. Al Gore, sadly, cost Al Gore the election, because he couldn’t carry the state he represented, and previously had supported him, for years.

6 replies »

  1. It is true that, if a presidential candidate wins 49 states and loses only one, he/she will win the election. And it is true that losing a single state, or any combination of states, wouldn’t matter if one had 270 electoral votes from the states one did win. It’s also true that missing a couple of free throws with seconds left in a basketball game wouldn’t matter if your team were up by 20 points.

    Most contests, of any sort, are won or lost on a combination of factors. Increasing the odds of winning is a matter of aligning as many of those factors in your favor as possible. In football, if you have no turnovers or penalties, and gain substantially more yards than your opponent, your odds of winning are close to 100%. Yes, you can have too many penalties and still win. Yes, you can have too many turnovers and still win. But your odds go down precipitously if you have either of those things happen.

    The 97,488 people in Florida who voted for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore (yes, a very few might have voted for Bush, instead, but that number has to be minimal) made, essentially, a conscious decision to fumble the ball/miss the free throws/jump offside at a critical moment in a critical state. A swing state. A state that had been predicted as a very likely decisive state in that election before anyone even voted. No late projection I ever saw had Tennessee, or any other former Confederate state, going to Gore, though Gore was given an outside chance at winning a couple, including Tennessee because of the favorite son thing, and Florida was a toss up. He got closer to winning Tennessee than any other Democratic candidate probably would have come, but not close enough, obviously.

    It’s easy to forgive the poor sucker who fumbles the ball or makes the errant pass in a closely contested athletic contest, allowing the opponent to win the game. The player didn’t mean to do it. It was a mistake that happened in the moment. But the decision to cast a vote for Nader in Florida and put W in the White House was premeditated. Those doing it made a conscious decision to help George W Bush win Florida.

    I don’t care about guilt. I care about rationality. I don’t think it’s rational to decide that, if you can’t have everything you want, you’d prefer to get nothing that you want. I think it’s even more irrational to decide that, if you can’t have everything you want, you will settle for getting everything you absolutely DON’T want instead of some of what you want.

    The issue for Sanders supporters is a personal one. They will have to decide whether to be rational or emotional.

  2. This isn’t really an either/or, though, is it? No doubt there was plenty wrong with Al Gore the candidate – I detested him for a lot of reasons. And you’re right about the Court and the Dems’ decision to roll over.

    At the same time, where Florida is concerned this was a math question. At a very pragmatic level it’s hard to imagine that Gore loses the state if Nader isn’t in the race.

    For me the bigger issue re: the reason you’re writing this – the looming “Bernie supporters elected Trump” meme – is much, much broader. I don’t know that I can make myself vote for a candidate who is as horribly wrong as Clinton. And like a lot of people, I know I resent the way it’s being framed. The Dems nominate a corrupt, war-hawk-from-hell oligarch-enabler that Dick Cheney and Charles Koch seem to prefer to the presumptive GOP nominee, and it’s somehow MY fault. Well, no. There is a candidate in the race whom all the polls show smacking Trump down handily, while Trump vs Clinton is inside the margin of error. Clinton supporters have been telling me all along that they back her because she can beat Trump. Except it isn’t at ALL clear that she can, but they keep backing her instead of switching to the pragmatic choice in Sanders.

    Again, I don’t especially like surveying this bizarre set of circumstances and being told that I’m an idiot. Which, by the way, I have been. I’m a silly child, as well, apparently. Meanwhile, I can’t help but note that several consecutive decades of voting for the lesser evil has gotten us a steadily, consistently increasing dose of … evil.

    I have wondered aloud if we don’t have to face, at some point, a choice between winning the battle and winning the war. If you told me that four years of Trump would drive a stake through the heart of the GOP as it is currently constituted, would I bite that bullet when the alternative is an eternal hegemony of lesser evil?

    This is a difficult question. But we know that we’re in a war, and we know that you don’t win a war without taking casualties.

    This is a hard, hard question, and yes, I get that there is a tragic human cost implied by what I suggest. I am not cavalier when talking about people’s lives.

    But there is a Malthusian element to it all. What good does it to save a life if it dooms ten more down the road?

    I don’t have all the answers, and the argument rages inside me. All I can say is that this question is in NO WAY as simple as a lot of folks want me to believe.

  3. The fact is, when your own political beliefs are far different from those of most of your countrymen, and you live in a nation with widespread suffrage, you are rarely, if ever, going to get a candidate that can win who agrees with you on everything. It does sometimes happen in congressional districts (note the Tea Partiers in Congress at the moment), and it has clearly happened in Vermont, a very small state with a population about the size of greater Greensboro. In a parliamentary system, a small, minority party can often have outsized influence because it forms part of a government with another party that couldn’t obtain an absolute majority on its own. Usually, this arrangement turns out badly. Regardless, this is not the way the US system works.

    So, if you are a US citizen on the fringe, be it left or right, you will almost always be voting, in your mind, for the lesser of two evils, and this will almost certainly be the case in statewide (in most states) and national elections. This doesn’t have to be fair. It doesn’t have to be right. It just is.

    Given this fact of life, the options are whether to vote, in your mind, for the lesser of two evils, not to vote at all, vote for someone who agrees with you on everything but who can’t win to “protest,” or vote for the candidate you hate most to protest. I would suggest that only one of those choices is in your best interests, so only one of those choices is rational.

  4. One photo op with Clinton in Arkansas and Florida would not have mattered. Further, didn’t Gore manage to lose all three debates against a dumbbell?

    • Well, he may or may not have lost those debates. More importantly, the media hated Gore with a passion–remember the Inventing the Internet meme? So of course he “lost” the debates. The problem was a mix of media hostility, Gore’s crappy campaign personality, and Clinton scandals that probably cost him Tennessee and some other states. The only other candidates that the media hated as much as Gore were McGovern and Carter. I actually thought Carter was a pretty good president, but you would never know that by the media coverage.

      I heard Gore give a speech in Germany about 18 months after the election to a bunch of European investors, and it was very interesting. The speech part was just plain horrible–scripted, wooden, everything we came to dislike about Gore as a candidate. Then we moved on to the Q&A–and these were pretty good questions, form a pretty knowledgable and sharp group of politically-engaged people–and the change couldn’t have been more dramatic. He was quick, really funny, knew tons of stuff, and gave a good, solid no-bullshit answer to everything thrown at him. Most of all, he transformed into someone very personable, and the whole sense of the room–I had a lot of conversations with people afterwards–was, Where the hell was this guy during the campaign? He would have won the election going away–even my Republican associates agreed with this. We just never saw him.

      • I agree with everything you’re saying. Sadly, his performance as a candidate was abominable. Further, his choice of running mate was pretty awful as well.