No More Mister Fall Guy: Why Ralph Nader is Not to Blame for “President” Bush

Published as a ZNet Commentary, November 9, 2000

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. That is, if things remain as they seem at this moment. With Gore having won the popular vote, 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 outcome squarely on the Green Party and Ralph Nader.

It had begun even before midnight: talking heads exclaiming that if Gore lost, the blame could be laid at the door of Nader and those 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 this key state to George 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 about who is to blame for Gore’s defeat. Here’s why:

First, the notion that Nader voters would all have voted for the Vice-President had Nader not run, is nonsense. CNN exit polls show 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 the Presidential contest altogether. Exit polls in Florida, conducted by MSNBC show that Nader drew almost equally between Gore, Bush, and “None of the above,” meaning his presence there may have been a total wash.

But for the sake of argument let’s assume this wasn’t the case. Let’s assume that since the final margin for Bush is likely to be as small as 1000 votes, had Nader not been in the race, Gore would have picked up more than enough of Nader’s 97,000 voters to capture Florida’s electoral college votes and catapult him to the Presidency. Even then, focusing on Nader would not make much sense.

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. Now, needless to say, if the Titans kicker misses that field goal, the Steelers win 7-6. If he makes it, the Titans 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 three 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 with Gore, and he wins Florida. But taking that singular fact to be the key factor, and making it, in effect, the missed field goal 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 53-44 margin, with the Nader factor being negligible among this group. The net swing of white women to Bush was over 100,000 voters in all. If Gore had just split the vote with Bush among all white women, he would have received 65,000 additional votes: more than enough to make the difference. In fact, all he needed to do was take perhaps four percent of these folks, or 2,500 of these women from the Bush column (just to give a bit of a cushion), thereby creating a swing of 5,000 total votes, and winning the race. That he couldn’t, is nobody’s fault but his.

And why are folks — most conspicuously the dear souls at the National Abortion Rights Action League — so quick to blame Nader voters for voting their conscience, but not blame these white women who voted for Bush, and obviously don’t share their concerns about comparable worth legislation, or the repeal of Roe v. Wade? There were more of these white women who helped elect Bush than there were Nader voters, and yet, liberals and white feminists are silent about criticizing them.

Ditto for seniors. Among Florida voters over 65, Gore lost 51-47, despite the fact that not only is this group traditionally Democratic, but in this election the Republican opponent ran on a platform to privatize parts of Social Security: an idea that has historically been red meat for any half-way decent Democrat, and has meant a wash-out for the Republican foolish enough to suggest it. In all, even without Nader in the race, Bush captures 67,000 more seniors than Gore. If Gore had just been able to pick up, say, three percent of these, he would be President right now. Again, why not blame seniors for ignoring their own interests (or simply disagreeing about what those interests were), instead of saying the Naderites are to blame?

Or what about the poor? Although Gore won most voters in families earning under $15,000 annually, Bush won almost four in ten of these economically strapped folks as well. How does that happen, when Bush’s tax plan would mean absolutely no real tax relief for such folks, and would benefit almost exclusively the well off? Could it be because Gore ignored poor people in favor of pandering to the “middle class?” Perhaps, but no one blames him for that; it’s easier to bash Nader. In all, even without Ralph in the race, Bush takes the votes of over 170,000 poor people. If Gore had taken even one percent of these, for a vote swing of almost 3,500, he would be President.

Or consider Democrats, thirteen percent of whom voted for Bush. In all, Gore lost 308,000 voters from his own party to W., while losing 24,000 Dems to Nader. Now sure, if Gore gets even half of that 24,000 who voted for Nader, because Nader never runs, or drops out at the last minute, then he wins Florida. But by the same token, if he gets even one-half of one percent of the Dems who voted for Bush, he also wins. Why are we only focusing on the votes he didn’t get from the much smaller Nader pool, than the votes he didn’t get from the much larger Bush pool?

Again, whose fault is it that Gore can’t pick up some of those folks? And why are the Dems who voted for Nader expected to “do the right thing” and vote for Gore, more so than the ones who voted for Bush? Why isn’t the party condemning Dems who voted for Bush as turncoats and sell-outs, instead of simply bashing those far fewer who went for Nader? Answer: the Democratic Party is much more comfortable with their members who lean right, than those who lean left, and bashing the former might cost them in future elections, while bashing the latter is seen as safe, because, after all, we have “nowhere else to go.” In fact, Gore lost seven-and-a-half times more Democrats to Bush, than he lost Democrats and Independents combined to Nader. So why are we only angry with the latter, and giving the folks who made up the former a free ride?

Finally, consider self-described liberals. Yes, believe it or not, George W. Bush took home the votes of seventeen percent of all liberals in Florida, for a total of over 191,000 ballots; this compared to 33,700 liberals who voted for Nader: about three percent of all liberals in the state. Now sure enough, if the Nader liberals vote for Gore — even half of them — he walks away with Florida handily. But by the same token, and more to the point, if Gore can simply peel off a mere one percent of liberals from Bush for God’s sake, then he wins. How much easier should that have been? And why aren’t the liberals who voted for Bush coming under the same scrutiny as those who voted for Nader?

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 shouldn’t be necessary to say any of this. It should be obvious that when an incumbent Vice-President, in an administration 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 thirty-six years, there is something amiss, and it isn’t the third party candidate. Keep in mind, two-thirds 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.

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