Maximizing Ralph: The Free Nader Vote
For liberals and progressives (and any radicals or anarchists who are voting), it's getting close to the time to fish or cut bait in the presidential election. The choice this year appears to be a stark one: vote enthusiastically for Ralph Nader, whose critique of corporate power is filled with outrage and overwhelming facts and figures, or hold your noise and vote for Al Gore, who -- in supporting increased military spending, massive prison expansion, the murderous drug war, the current health care system and much more -- is neither liberal nor progressive.
No issue has dominated liberal and progressive political debate more this election cycle than the Gore/Nader dilemma. Many pages of rhetoric and much public hand-wringing has gone into deciding who to vote for, especially in lefty magazines like The Nation and In These Times, on progressive web sites like TomPaine.com and NewsforChange.com, and in public gatherings like the big Nation event in LA during the Democratic Convention and a recent conference in New York called "Independent Politics in the Global Age."
The Nader vote is risky, according to the conventional wisdom, because it could be a vote for Bush, who would turn back the clock of social progress. The Gore vote is the safe one, the infamous "lesser of two evils." Voting safe suggests protecting such cherished goals like worker's rights and a women's right to chose.
But is this conventional wisdom correct? Must we choose between idealism and pragmatism? Must we fall back to a candidate we don't want, when there is a candidate who is articulating virtually every issue we care about with clarity and intelligence? The answer is a clear no -- the Nader/Gore dichotomy is a big exaggeration. Here's why.
The overwhelming majority of states are shoe-ins for either Bush or Gore. In fact, their campaigns have already decided that more than 35 states where there are significant leads for one candidate aren't worth fighting over, and their voters don't deserve a nickel's worth of political ads. In New York, for example, Gore is ahead by 19 points. Why would the parties squander their soft money there?
Likewise, why would a progressive New Yorker squander their vote on Gore?
The Ivins Rule
Given the nature of our winner-take-all, corporate-money-drenched democracy, many believe that voting isn't the best way to create social progress. For them, voting is tactical; it's about setting the agenda and holding politicians accountable. In this election, progressives who feel that way have an opportunity to make a significant statement, to send a loud and clear message to the political establishment -- we won't let our issues be left out of politics anymore.
Actually, the concept is pretty simple, as the ever-wise Molly Ivins points out. She has written:
"My voting philosophy is simple: In the primaries, go with your heart; in the finals, vote your brain.... The point here is to move the debate. I am so sick of having to listen to Newt-Gingrich, Rush-Limbaugh Republicans and the Democrats who keep caving to them that I'll vote Nader in a New York minute. OK, that's because I live in Texas, where a vote for Nader is a 'free vote.' Our electors are going to Dubya no matter how Democrats here vote, so for us this is the equivalent of a primary vote: Go with your heart. The same is true in states with the reverse situation. Massachusetts and New York will go Democratic no matter how the progressives vote; and if we can get Nader and the Green Party the 5 percent they need to qualify for federal spending in 2004, we will, in fact, move the debate. There's every reason to do it, and no reason not to. As for you voters in swing states, where you might actually make a difference, why don't we wait and see how it looks in November?"
This tidbit of wisdom will be forever known as the Ivins Rule. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel calls the Ivins Rule "strategic voting." But hey, shouldn't all voting be strategic?
As sociologist Harry Levine reminds us, "election results nowadays are very knowable -- not the exact percentage of the vote, but the outcome and likely range of victory. Gore, Lieberman, Bush and Cheney are all campaigning like mad in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Florida and a few other states because those are the states where the elction is turning, where it's close. The rest of the states are fairly certain to go one way or the other, and there are good guesses about the percentage."
Why is voting for Nader without risk possible? Because of the Electoral College, it makes no difference if Gore or Bush win a particular state by one vote or by a million. The president is not elected by the popular vote, but by a majority (270) of the 538 electoral votes. These electoral votes are cast by state, and it's winner-take-all within each state. Thus, a Nader vote has no chance of "spoiling" the outcome for Al Gore unless it potentially changes the outcome within each state. And for 90 percent of the states (including the biggest ones), that's not going to happen.
Many articulate Goreites have missed this point, and insist on hammering home the spoiler argument. Of course, we need to consider their motivation. From Paul Wellstone to Barney Frank, Jesse Jackson (both Senior and Junior, although at least Junior tried to get Nader into the presidential debates) to Bob Borosage, Joe Conason and on and on, they are elected officals who need the Democrats to get themselves reeclected, or people with funding ties to trade unions deeply invested in a Gore victory, or pundits with sources of inside information in White House establishment, etc, etc.
It's not that these Gore apologists should be completely blamed. These guys are practicing the pragmatic politics that works for them, a position they think is the "left wing of the possible." But working constantly within the system and losing touch with the larger progressive base -- especially with the many disgusted voters who have dropped out -- can backfire on you in the end. Much more than a solid Gore victory is possible in this election. If progressives vote smart, we could elevate the Nader populist critique to much larger audiences.
To make the numbers case is Steve Cobble, a Nader supporter but one who, as an advisor for Jesse Jackson and many others, has earned a reputation as one of the most acute analysts of voter patterns and the arcane machinations of the political system. Cobble broken down the numbers in an article for TomPaine.com, and come to this conclusion:
"Except for a very small number of states, progressives have a free vote. They can vote their conscience for Ralph Nader, and help him get the 5 percent he needs to build a new fourth party. In at least two-thirds of the country, and perhaps as many as nine states out of ten, a vote for Ralph Nader is not a vote for George Bush. It's really a vote for Ralph Nader."
Here is Cobble's run down, state by state:
(1) Safe for Bush (17 states): Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming.
In these states, every progressive can vote for Nader knowing that they are not endangering the Supreme Court in any way.
(2) Leaning toward Bush (7 states): Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, New Hampshire.
Same basic rule -- in these states, progressives can vote for Ralph safe in the knowledge that none of these states are absolutely necessary to build a winning electoral coalition for Gore.
(3) Safe for Gore (15 states): California, Connecticut, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia, Vermont.
In these states, progressives can not only vote safely for Nader, they can each recruit one ortwo other friends to vote for Ralph, secure in the knowledge that George Bush has given up (or will give up in early October) on winning these electoral votes.
(4) Leaning toward Gore (7 states): Delaware, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin.
These states are likely to end up in Gore's column, unless he badly blows the debates. If they do maintain his current lead, then progressives are secure in voting for Nader.
(5) Toss-up (5 states): Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio.
In these five swing states, the Ivins Rule applies most strongly -- check the state polls right before election day, then make your judgment.
The Moore Rule
There is another complementary take on the Ivins Rule -- the Michael Moore rule:
"If you didn't vote at all in 1996, then you are free to vote for Ralph Nader no matter where you live. As a non-voters, you are part of the biggest party of all, and you should come to the polls to help build a fourth party that can offer you more choices in future elections."
Moore goes on to note that if non-voters show up at the polls for Ralph, they are likely to vote for Democrats in state and local elections, since most races don't have Green Party candidates on the ballot. In that scenario, Gore and the Democrats will owe Nader a big thank you, especially if the extra voters help secure the House or Senate for the Dems.
Cobble makes a similar appeal:
"If it bothers you that you might be a 'spoiler,' then follow the [Ivins Rule] and you won't risk it. If it doesn't bother you, then let's spend the last few weeks identifying and turning out the 5 percent we need to build an alternative (while taking back the House from the remaining Gingrich crowd at the same time, and maybe even the Senate from Helms and Hatch).
"I support Ralph Nader because he is a geniune American hero, a leader of unquestioned integrity, and a lifelong progressive. He is campaigning on the issues that I believe will most affect the earth in the next few decades -- the impact of globalization on working people and the environment, the rising inequality in wealth, and the increasing corporate domination of democracy."
If these arguments from Cobble and Ivins and Moore can't calm the nerves of jittery progressives everywhere, it may be that nothing can. But with Gore creeping ahead in the polls -- he has 45 percent to Bush's 41 in the very comprehensive American Research Group poll -- it may be a victory for both the Democrats and the Greens come November.