ON THE ROAD WITH RALPH

Why Nader is NOT to Blame

Media pundits, Democratic Party officials, and maybe even Al Gore himself will soon blame election results squarely on the shoulders of the Green Party and Ralph Nader. But state-by-state analysis of the figures shows that Nader did not siphon off enough Gore votes to matter -- and that even if he had, Gore should never have let it get so close.
Well, the long knives are out. Media pundits, Democratic Party officials, and I would suspect Al Gore himself before long, have or will soon begin to do the predictable: search out a scapegoat for why the Presidential election turned out the way it did. With Gore having won the popular vote, and yet having apparently lost in the electoral college, there will be a cacophony of voices saying some constructive things -- like discussing the need for an instant runoff/preference voting system that would better reflect the will of the American public -- but also blaming the victory of George W. Bush squarely on the shoulders of the Green Party and Ralph Nader.

It had begun even before midnight: television talking heads exclaiming that if Gore lost, the blame could be laid at the door of Nader and those presumed liberals and leftists that flocked to his campaign. Few commentators challenged this analysis, and by the morning after -- as we await recounts in Florida that will determine the outcome -- it has become conventional wisdom that Nader did indeed cost Gore the election, by swinging Oregon, Florida, and perhaps even New Hampshire to Bush II.

Such is the sorry state of political analysis, not to mention statistical interpretation, and such is the pathetic state of the Democratic Party: so desperate to avoid admitting its own mistakes that it would prefer to attack a large segment of its progressive base, chastising them like misbehaving children, as if somehow that will bring them back to the fold. Not likely. And not a very smart move.

Most importantly, the Blame-Nader first school is wrong, dead wrong about who is to blame for Gore's slim electoral defeat. Here's why:

First, the notion that Nader voters would all have voted for the Vice President in the absence of their favorite from the race, is nonsense. CNN exit polls show that only about 47 percent of the Nader voters would have voted for Gore in a two way race, while 21 percent would have voted for Bush and 30 percent would have abstained from voting in the Presidential contest altogether.

This is significant, especially in New Hampshire and Oregon, where some are saying the Nader vote was the difference.

Looking at New Hampshire first, it is true that Bush's margin of victory was only about 7,500 votes, and that Nader received about 22,000 votes there. But based on the exit polling data, if Nader hadn't been in the race, only a little less than half of those Nader votes would have gone to Gore, and a fifth would have gone to Bush, so that in the end, Bush would have still won New Hampshire by about 1500 votes in all.

In Oregon, where it is a virtual article of religious faith that Nader is to blame for the Bush victory, the hype is once again overblown and flatly wrong. Yes, Bush won the state by a margin of only about 23,000 votes, and Nader received the votes of 54,000. But once again, based on the exit polls, had the race been only between Gore and Bush, Gore would have gotten 47 percent of those 54,000, for a total of around 25,400, Bush would have received 21 percent of those 54,000, for a total of about 11,300, and in the end, Bush would still have squeaked out a victory, by about 8,000 votes.

Which brings us to Florida. If ever there was a case to make that Nader had been the spoiler for Gore, it would be here, where the election will likely be decided by less than 2,000 votes. Clearly, one could look at Nader's 97,000 votes there and say, with a degree of certainty approaching definitive, that had Nader not been in the race, Gore would have beaten Bush among Nader voters by a two to one margin, and that would have been enough to capture Florida's 25 electoral college votes and catapult him to the Presidency.

It is this fact which has me anticipating a degree of vitriol, finger-pointing and Nader bashing truly beyond anything we have seen thus far from the Democrats. And I fear that some in the Nader camp may fall for it, and come to regret their decision to vote for an alternative to this broken two-party system. But they shouldn't, and here's why:

Think about this election the way you would any other competition: perhaps, a football game. Just a few days ago, for example, I watched as my hometown team, the Tennessee Titans, beat the Pittsburgh Steelers thanks to a field goal in the closing seconds of the game. Now, needless to say, if the Titans kicker misses that field goal, the Steelers win 7-6. If he makes it, we win 9-7. It would have been easy to say -- and predictable and even true at one level -- that if Al Del Greco misses that field goal, he is to blame, and the outcome was the result of that missed kick.

But then again, one could also look back at the entire game and find a number of other things, which, had the Titans done them right, the game wouldn't have come down to that kick in the first place, and so those things could just as logically be seen as the problem. An interception at a crucial moment, a fumble, or a penalty flag that hurt an offensive drive. Any one of those things goes differently, and the Titans have more than enough points at the end of the game, and don't need the 3 points that Del Greco can give them. They can just run out the clock and hit the showers as winners.

The same is true in the presidential contest. Sure, if Nader isn't running, a plurality of his voters goes to Gore, and he wins Florida. But taking that singular fact to be the key factor, and making it, in effect, the missed field goal by Gore as the clock runs out, is silly. There were, as with the Titans game, plenty of other factors that could have and should have gone Gore's way in Florida, but because they didn't, Nader became a factor. And whose fault is that?

Consider this: Gore lost in Florida among white women (many of those soccer moms who Clinton carried, and many of whom would normally have been reached by a Democratic candidate talking about education, health care, abortion, and other key issues) by a 52-45 margin, with the Nader factor being negligible among this group. And he lost among seniors, a group that rightly should have been concerned about Bush's plans to partially privatize social security: a plan that twelve years ago rendered Pierre DuPont (the only Republican willing to float the concept) an asterisk in American political history, and a laughingstock. Here too, among the traditionally Democratic constituency of seniors, the Nader factor was negligible.

Even more to the point, Bush received the votes of 12 times more Democrats than Nader did, and 5.25 times more self-identified liberals than Nader did in Florida, indicating that progressive voters and those who might have been seen as a natural lock for Gore, actually were stolen not by the Greens, but by the Republicans.

Now folks, when your base is more likely to vote for George W. Bush than Ralph Nader, this not only is bad news for Nader, but also makes quite clear that Gore -- not Nader -- is to blame for his loss in Florida. In all, 19 percent of voters there described themselves as liberal. If Nader got 3 percent of these, this represents a little less than 6/10ths of the overall popular vote that could have been "taken" from Gore by Nader voters on the left: those who are being blamed for Gore's defeat. But if 16 percent of liberals voted for Bush (which they did, for some reason), this represents 3 percent of the total popular vote "stolen" from Gore by Bush voters on the left. That 3 percent is more than the Nader total in Florida, which was 2 percent.

The same thing happened in Oregon, where Bush outpolled Nader among Democrats by a margin of 3.5 to 1, and where Bush took 43 percent more of the self-described liberals than Nader. And in New Hampshire, where Bush took six times more Dems from Gore than Nader did, and twice as many self-described liberals.

What all this means is simple: Al Gore has no one to blame but himself, and his inability to rally voters sufficiently around his watered-down agenda and lackluster campaign. Gore actually lost nationwide among voters who said they prioritized world affairs, despite the fact that Bush would be hard-pressed to name a small fraction of world leaders, and has no foreign policy experience whatsoever. And just to make clear that Nader was not Gore's Achilles heel, consider this: nationally, Bush got twice as many self-described liberals as Nader did, over seven times more Clinton voters than Nader did, and among those who said "government should do more" (a typically liberal/progressive position statement), Bush took eight times more of these natural Democratic voters than did Nader.

Of course, it should not be necessary to say any of this. It should be obvious that when an incumbent Vice-President, in an administration that is generally given high marks for the state of the economy, and who serves in time of relative world peace, can't defeat a man who is probably the least qualified, weakest Republican nominee in the past 36 years, there is something amiss -- and it isn't the third party candidate.

Keep in mind, 66 percent of the American public says the nation is on the right track. That is significantly more than said this same thing in 1996, when only a little over half felt that way. And yet, when almost half the population thought the nation was not headed in the right direction, Bill Clinton was able to put together a landslide victory. Meanwhile, Gore, with two-thirds of the public happy about the direction of the country, appears to have lost. How could that possibly be the fault of Ralph Nader?

And of course, had Gore carried his own home state, along with either Clinton's home state of Arkansas or the traditional Democratic stronghold of West Virginia, then Florida would be an irrelevancy.

But don't look for that kind of honesty from the Democratic Party, or Democrat-friendly spinmeisters in the media. When in doubt, they always look left for a scapegoat, when the real culprit for their troubles is looking back at them from the mirror.

So don't believe the hype. If you voted for Nader, don't feel guilty or conflicted for one minute. And don't mourn, organize! After all, the next President of the United States will be the weakest in decades, unable to get away with the right-wing plans about which we have been warned. And the Democrats, though we might not have actually cost them the election, have been put on notice. They can no longer ignore the voices of those committed to democratic (small-d) principles.

In the final analysis, it's not that bad a day after all.

Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and activist. He can be reached at [email protected]
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