Old News: Did Nader Cost Gore the Election?

Many of us who are frustrated & upset that Bush was appointed president in 2000 have a particular outlet for their frustration: Nader’s 2000 campaign and the folks who voted for him, particularly those thousands in Florida.

I have little patience with this, and since those frustrations are still being aired today, I’m aiming to keep a little list of just why, exactly, Bush was appointed president, and why Gore wasn’t. (And if you want to think about who to blame, blame these folks.)

  1. First, Remember that Gore Actually Won
    It was a contested election, but Gore won the popular vote nationally, and by most recounts, won the popular vote in Florida, as well. Which means he actually won the electoral college, and should have been president. So, when we discuss why Bush is president, it’s important to remember that he is president, first and foremost, because the election was close enough that it was in the margin of contestability, and Bush’s team was better at fighting the contested election. All debates about why Gore “lost” therefore should really be reframed as two questions: (a) how Bush won the post-election contest; and (b) why Gore’s victory was not outside the margin of contestability. Here, I largely address the second question, why Gore’s victory was not greater than the margin of contestability.
  2. Blame the Folks Who Voted for Bush
    • Millions of people actually voted for W. Really. I know it’s shocking, but it’s true. I won’t even take the time to go into the lies, half-truths, and appeals to prejudice and ill-will that went into those votes, but there you have it. Republican voters.
    • 5 crucial people voted for W. Yes, Supreme Court Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, O’Connor, and Kennedy–Republicans all–voted for W. when it really counted.
  3. Blame the Folks Who Stopped Citizens from Voting
    Thousands of Floridians were disenfranchised in various ways, disproportionately affecting African-American communities. These included:

    • Incorrectly purging many people from the voter rolls as “ex-felons” when those people were not in fact felons;
    • turning away voters at polling places because of over-crowding;
    • the ballot design issues that led to a lot of Pat Buchanan votes in a liberal Democratic Jewish county.
  4. Blame the Democratic Candidate
    Ultimately, the election was Gore’s to lose or win. One could tactically analyze the Gore campaign in numerous ways, but a few are significant to this debate.

    • Nader offered to meet with Gore and made noises about leaving the election in exchange for some compromises. Gore refused to take Nader’s campaign seriously and so committed a fatal flaw.
    • Beyond Nader, Gore refused to broaden his base to include the grassroots left. This was a political calculation. Deciding whether that was a mistake or the right judgment call is another question. But it was no surprise to Gore that a certain number of folks on the left felt disaffected by his campaign and alienated by the policies of the Democratic party. It’s the responsibility of any candidate to form a coalition — in this country, coalitions & support are formed prior to the winner-take-all election. Gore chose not to work with the grassroots left, and consequently did not build a large enough coalition to take the election out of the contested area.
  5. Blame the Third-Party Candidates
    Sure, we can blame the third party candidates. It was a complicated election and there were lots of things going on, and the third party candidates had a role too. But it’s not that simple of a role. Even if you look just at the third-party candidate argument, things get more complicated. Ralph Nader, it is argued, took votes away from Gore. This argument supposes several things about the Nader-voters.

    • The Nader voters would, in the absence of Nader, have voted for Gore. This is certainly untrue for some percentage of these voters. Nader’s votes were largely drawn from three different pools, in no particular order: (a) hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-Gore voters; (b) otherwise-non-voters who were energized by the Nader campaign; (c) leftist voters who would not have voted for Gore but who would have voted for another socialist or leftist party in the absence of Nader.
    • Focusing on Nader ignores the influence of other third-party candidates. For instance, the right-wing had third party candidate Pat Buchanan. Other parties, the Libertarians and the Reform Party, also had third party candidates. As in the who-voted-forNader analysis, if an analysis of these other parties’ voters were done, some portion of these voters would have likely voted for Bush in the absence of their actual candidate. … This feeds back to the presumption, rarely stated but seemingly underlying many arguments, that a two-party system is the real system, and that voting outside the two-party system is in some way undesirable or illegitimate or at the very least “unrealistic”
  6. Blame the Folks Who Stopped the Recounts That Would Have Solved the Prolem
    • The US Supreme Court stopped a recount (later deciding that there wasn’t time to recount).
    • Gore chose not to contest the election, despite the blatant disenfranchisement of thousands of African-Americans and other citizens.
    • An “angry Republican mob” attempted to dissuade recounts from happening in Miami-Dade. The mob was engineered by the Republican party.
  7. Blame the Incorrectly Admitted Votes
    • Florida admitted absentee military votes that were mailed and received after deadline. This includes votes that were problematic.

Nader faction isn’t really about the facts of who won what and why. Ultimately, this was a complex election cycle, and there were many factors and political games played. But there are reasons why it is convenient to blame Nader, and underlying ideologies play a role in people’s thinking.

Blaming Nader is easy …

  • It is always easy to try to pinpoint one factor.
  • The cult of personality–positive and negative–affects the blame-game: Individuals are easier to pinpoint as a factor than “issues” or “behaviors” or, God forbid, voting technologies.

… but builds on core beliefs about elections, democracy, and US democracy
As discussed already, many factors went into the election. In a complex election cycle, it’s easy to pinpoint one factor. Logically, of course, it makes no sense. So why do these arguments have so much resonance? Because they are premised on underlying beliefs about US democracy and the role of politics. These underlying beliefs are what ultimately makes this debate such a live one–they provide the heat that foments ongoing controversy and arguments.

  • At its most offensive, this argument assumes that a two-party system is the right and just system, and that third-party candidates are illegitimate.
  • At the very least, this argument assumes that any votes outside of othe two major parties are “wasted” and that the real contest is between only the two major parties. It assumes that the only reason to vote is to say which of the two major parties you like better, or, that voting is to be merely used as a tactical tool, and one particular tactic at that.
  • It ignores other reasons to vote, such as: the tactic of building a third party system, or the philosophy of choosing a candidate whose values best reflect yours.
  • It also ignores certain fundamental political realities, namely, that politicians have to fashion broad bases of support in various ways. In some countries, they do this by forming coalition governments. In this country, a winner-take-all system governs the election. So the coalitions are formed prior to the election. Nevertheless, various interest groups & folks from across the political spectrum still have influence and affect elections.

update, 2004-10-28: Andrew O’Hehir agrees:

So go back to your angry Democratic relatives this Thanksgiving and tell them they were right about 2000. The apology I suggest is: “Yes, given the fact that Gore ran a crappy campaign and represented a fatally compromised party buried in corporate sleaze up to its Hair Club for Men implants, and that he used the word ‘lockbox’ repeatedly and had the most irritating scold in the history of the world as his running mate and generally came off like a grumpy vice-principal and seemed eager to capitulate when the Republicans disenfranchised thousands of black and Jewish and elderly voters and stole the election — once you accept all of that and the hanging chads and the Rehnquist court as natural and inevitable, then, yes, the 40,000 or so Nader votes in Florida that would have otherwise gone to Gore (leaving aside the question of the 800,000 or so Florida Democrats who voted for Bush) cost the Democrats the election.” That ought to promote some healing around the holiday hearth.

— salon.com, Civic Avowal, Andrew O’Hehir, 2004-10-28