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Is Nader Right?

Sam Parry
September 5, 2001

Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader has reemerged on the national scene with the same message he used during the 2000 campaign: that he was right to challenge Al Gore and the perceived rightward drift of the Democratic Party, even if that effort contributed to George W. Bush gaining the White House.

Nader’s comments – in hour-long appearances on C-SPAN and National Public Radio and with an article in Rolling Stone – come as Democrats and Republicans are engaged in high-stakes battles over America’s return to structural on-budget deficits, the future of Social Security and Medicare, and the federal government’s ability to play a significant role in addressing the nation’s environmental and other problems.

The two parties are also at odds over President Bush's determination to cast aside arms control treaties in favor of Ronald Reagan’s nuclear missile shield. Bush is pushing this concept so single-mindedly that the White House is signaling that it will accept, as a tradeoff, China’s plans to build up its nuclear arsenal, a move that Democrats and other analysts say could touch off a nuclear arms race in India and Pakistan. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., called the administration's strategy "absolutely absurd." [NYT, Sept. 2, 2001]

Yet, Nader’s message remains that there are few significant differences between the two parties. "The similarities of turning our government, our elections, our politics to big business tower over the dwindling real differences between the two parties that they are willing to fight over," he said on NPR's Diane Rehm Show on Aug. 28.

Furthermore, Nader argues, Al Gore lost Election 2000 on his own, by ignoring the Democratic base and by being complicit in the sell-out of the Democratic Party to corporate America.

Whether Nader is right about the extent of corporate access to the Democratic Party, his election analysis fails to take into account several critical facts about the national voting patterns revealed in Election 2000. A closer look at those patterns also can shed light on the plausibility of Nader's third-party strategy and its likely consequences if pursued again in future elections.

First of all, Nader's analysis ignores the point that Gore won the popular vote and earned more votes than any other Democratic candidate in history. Gore was only the second presidential candidate – and the first non-incumbent president – to top 50 million votes, trailing only Ronald Reagan's vote tally in 1984.

There's also little evidence that Gore offended the Democratic base by failing to stake out more liberal positions. Indeed, the Democratic base stayed overwhelmingly loyal to Gore in 2000.

According to Charlie Cook in The Almanac of American Politics 2002, "Of the 39 percent of the electorate who called themselves Democrats in 2000, Gore pulled 86 percent of the vote, which was not only higher than Bill Clinton in 1992 or 1996 but also the highest percentage for any Democratic nominee in at least the last seven presidential elections."

In addition, nine out of 10 African-American voters voted for Al Gore and 71 percent of voters in cities with populations over 500,000 went to Gore, both historical highs and not indicative of a disillusioned liberal base. []

Blue vs. Red

Further, the states Gore won by solid margins, the so-called "blue states," are the more progressive states in the country, states such as New York, California, Massachusetts and Maryland. The states won easily by Bush, the "red states," are the more conservative states – the likes of Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Where Gore saw an erosion of support was in the inland swing states. Bush won a number of key heartland states – such as Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia – any of which could have tipped the election to Gore.

Yet, Nader was a negligible factor in those six states, receiving less than a quarter of a million votes, out of about 12.25 million cast, or two percent. Nader’s showing in these swing states fell below his national turnout of three percent. Excluding Ohio, where Nader received nearly 118,000 votes, or 2.5 percent of the vote, Nader’s support in these heartland swing states slips to just 1.5 percent.

Given Nader’s poor showing in these swing states, it is hard to make the argument that Bush carried them because Gore wasn't liberal enough. Even if Gore had gotten every one of Nader's votes and did so without offending moderate voters, he still would have lost those states.

In fact, the polling data suggests Gore was hurt in the Appalachian states because many of his positions were viewed as too liberal. His environmental stands were seen as hostile to coal. His support for gun control measures made him suspect to some working-class hunters. His anti-tobacco positions cost him with some agricultural interests.

Nationally, polls also showed that the Bush campaign gained traction last fall when it began denouncing Gore as a big-spending liberal, citing Gore's proposals to expand Medicare and initiate other social programs that were more ambitious than what Bush proposed.

Beyond these pocket-book issues, some working-class churchgoers were persuaded that the Democrats represent an overly permissive attitude toward moral values. Polling data indicates that Gore narrowed Bush's early lead with the vice-presidential selection of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who was regarded by many as a moralist for his criticism of Clinton's personal behavior and Hollywood.

Rural Success

In line with more conservative attitudes, Bush scored well with rural voters, an electoral bloc he won with 59 percent of the vote, according to Cook's analysis. This support among rural voters for a Republican in recent presidential elections is bettered only by Reagan’s 1984 electoral landslide, according to Cook.

A county-by-county analysis of the presidential election provides further evidence that Bush’s gain among rural voters was crucial in key swing states, such as Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. Throughout the Mississippi River basin, scores of counties that voted "blue" in 1996 went "red" in 2000. That erosion for the Democrats put the election within Bush’s reach.

So what happened in these counties and in these important swing states? How could Gore have improved over Clinton’s 1996 performance among core Democrats while losing so many Independents and Republicans? What accounts for Gore's poor showing along the Mississippi and in rural counties throughout the country?

One can argue that Democratic positions on guns, coal, and/or tobacco cost votes in many of the swing states and rural counties. One also can say Clinton’s impeachment and the eight solid years of Clinton scandals, real or fabricated, played a role.

One can say that Bush simply presented himself as more down-to-earth and a better friend of the rural voter. One can even argue that Gore’s verbal gaffes combined with the media’s exaggerations of Gore’s supposed exaggerations left many voters along Main Street, USA, wondering whether they could trust Gore. [See "Al Gore v. the Media," Feb. 1, 2000]

What is hard to argue is that Gore lost Election 2000 because he wasn’t liberal enough.

The only conceivable theory along those lines would be that a far more liberal Al Gore might have thwarted Nader's candidacy so thoroughly that Nader's votes in New Hampshire and Florida – the only two states where Nader's tally exceeded Bush's official victory margin – might have tipped those states into Gore's column.

But such a dramatic shift to the left certainly would have offended many moderate and independent voters, likely costing Gore more votes than he would have gained. Already, many political analysts have concluded that Gore's populist, progressive, "stand and fight" rhetoric on the stump hurt Gore with centrist voters. Gore faced a difficult balancing act trying to appeal to progressive voters without alienating politically moderate Americans.

An Uphill Campaign

Indeed, while it may be popular to blame Gore for blowing what some claim should have been an easy electoral victory, there is very little evidence to support that analysis, either.

Throughout 1999, in the wake of Clinton's impeachment battle, Gore trailed Bush by 10-18 points in the polls. A CNN/Time poll released on March 5, 1999, gave Bush a 52-41 lead. A July 16, 1999, CNN/Time poll had Bush up by an even wider margin, 56-38. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released right before the Republican convention on July 27, 2000, Bush led Gore in a two-way race 54-40.

Clearly, Gore had a lot of catching up to do. Yet, on Election Day, thanks largely to a loyal Democratic base, Gore won the popular vote and arguably won the electoral vote.

This polling evidence suggests that as the Gore campaign built up steam, his message and his platform gained support among the voters. In other words, Gore's campaign appears to have been a relative success, especially considering the hostile media environment in which it played out. [See "Protecting Bush & Cheney," Oct. 16, 2000]

Nader and the Green Party seek to trump any fine-point voting analysis by countering with the argument that 50 percent of the voting-age population is so turned off by politics that it doesn't bother to vote.

According to this thesis, the non-voters are disgusted with the choices and are hungry for a real alternative, presumably someone like Ralph Nader offering a progressive agenda. With such a candidate in the race, the voting percentages would surge, reshaping the political landscape.

Yet, with Nader in the race in 2000, the turnout was 50.4 percent, within the range of the previous five presidential elections. Of the voters who did cast ballots, Nader got about three percent. By comparison, quirky populist Ross Perot and his Reform Party garnered nearly 19 percent in 1992 when the voter turnout was 55.2 percent.

Overall, election turnout has been slipping since the days of Vietnam and Watergate. In 1968, turnout was nearly 61 percent. In 1972, it slipped to about 55 percent and has remained in the 50-55 percent range ever since. []

No Lost Legion

The available evidence simply doesn't support the theory that there is a lost legion of discontented leftists across America who are waiting for a chance to vote for someone like Nader, or who would turn out for a Democratic candidate if one staked out far more liberal positions than Gore.

Nader's analysis, however, holds that it was the Democrats' lust for campaign cash that corrupted them and led them to betray their liberal principles. On the Diane Rehm Show, Nader said the Democratic decline began in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"That’s when Tony Coelho, Congressman, taught the Democrats that they could raise as much money from business interests as Republicans," said Nader. "And that’s when the decay and the corruption and all these fundraisers and all this sleaze began."

Nader’s argument gives scant attention to the broad, rightward trend in the national news media’s political reporting, a development that also traces back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. In that period, wealthy conservative foundations and individuals supplied hundreds of millions of dollars in seed money to a host of conservative media outlets. [See "Democrats' Dilemma: Deeper than Al Gore," Aug. 4, 1999]

Conservatives also unleashed well-funded attack groups to single out and hound mainstream reporters who uncovered factual information that undercut conservative "themes." While this well-funded conservative drive has continued unabated for a quarter century, the American Left has offered little in the way of a countervailing effort.

Today, right-wing media personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh, and major news outlets, such as the Fox News Channel, give conservatives platforms for getting out the Right's message – and their version of reality – to the voters, day in and day out. Limbaugh recently signed an eight-year, $200 million contract to continue his daily radio program. The progressives and the liberals have nothing even remotely similar.

The hard truth seems to be that the U.S. progressive movement has grown increasingly marginal by failing to compete effectively with conservatives for the hearts and minds of the American people. The conservatives have assiduously built up support for their positions, with a combination of grassroots organizing and media operations, creating a ready-made constituency for conservative candidates.

Structural Problem

By contrast, the neglect of media by liberals and progressives poses a long-term structural problem for all left-of-center candidates, whether they be in the mold of Gore or Nader. The Right has simply done a more effective job in understanding the modern media structure and exploiting it for propaganda purposes.

On top of this media advantage, Republicans hold nearly a two-to-one fundraising edge over Democrats, a margin that could widen with Bush in the White House. Nader and his supporters don't give this disparity much attention. Indeed, their message is that both sides are about equally corrupt.

Nader certainly has a right to needle Democrats to stake out policy positions more to his liking or to compete in a presidential campaign. Many of his criticisms of the Democratic Party also are supported by fact, even if he expresses them without much subtlety or nuance.

Yet, there is an unreality to some of the analysis behind the Nader strategy, a denial of the fact that the American people are not as far to the left politically as some of Nader's backers would like. The fact is that the current political-media landscape, which brags that "perception" trumps "reality," poses grave risks for politicians who tack too far left. It is for this reason that, for example, the press generally mocked Gore's observation that the internal combustion engine will eventually become a relic of the past even though many automakers readily agree with Gore. National political analysts, fed and encouraged by conservative agitators with big megaphones, such as Rush Limbaugh, discredited many of Gore's positions in spite of the facts.

Given that lack of public backing, Nader-type efforts will almost certainly fail to move the electorate. They will likely have their greatest effect in siphoning off Democratic votes to the benefit of conservative Republicans.

Indeed, some Green Party backers say the Democrats would be better served running a firebrand progressive in a presidential contest even if such a candidate would face almost certain defeat, in the way that Sen. Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 Republican bid changed the GOP.

Though there is no evidence that such a transformation of the Democratic Party would occur – and certainly didn't after George McGovern was crushed in 1972 – that recommendation suggests that in the near term, Nader and his supporters are willing to accept the elections of more Republican candidates.

More Republican victories would, in turn, accelerate the conservative drive to dismantle the federal government's ability to address pressing domestic and international needs. The nation has seen this result already as the Bush tax cut and the evaporating budget surplus mean the federal government cannot fund new programs, like prescription drug benefits for seniors.

Also put in jeopardy are existing programs, including Social Security, Medicare, environmental initiatives and the work of regulatory agencies. The disappearing surplus also translates into higher long-term interest rates that can shackle the economy, reduce job growth and delay a transition to more sustainable industries that are less damaging to the environment.

Beyond those structural economic problems, Bush has shown his determination to press ahead with the conservative agenda in undermining international treaties on nuclear non-proliferation and on global warming. Yet, Nader still blames the Democrats.

"The key is whether the Democrats are really willing to fight for what they believe in," Nader said on the Diane Rehm Show.

But a key challenge for Nader is to offer a plausible road map for how his political strategy will achieve anything beyond a consolidation of conservative power.

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