BY PROF. FELLMETH
It is conventional wisdom everywhere that Nader cost Gore the 2000 presidential election. The book review of Nader’s “Crashing the Party” in the RECORD by Prof. Koenig makes the same assumption — as do all pundits and much of the public. After all, look at Florida’s close vote.
The truth is counterintuitive but much different. Nader took 3 percent of the vote. Experts agree that roughly 40 percent of his vote consisted of those who would not have voted otherwise, 20 percent consisted of people who would have voted for Bush and 40 percent consisted of those who would have voted for Gore. That translates to a difference of one-fifth of the Nader vote hurting Gore, amounting to six-tenths of one percent of the total vote. Still, that was enough in Florida, right? That is the end of the inquiry if one is thinking in two dimensions in a three-dimensional world. Elections are not simply addition or subtraction — calculus is involved. A proper calculation concludes that a Nader vote of up to 10 to 15 percent helps Gore. How? Because of the spectrum-shift dynamic in presidential elections.
We should be able to agree that the election is decided by the 15 to 25 percent of the electorate who are neither strong Republican nor Democratic partisans. And we should be able to agree that Republicans generally defeat Democratic presidential candidates by pushing them off the left side of the spectrum. And it works almost every time. The middle 20 percent is scared to death of the name-calling from the right. What happened to Humphrey (characterized as a maudlin bleeding heart who would give money to anyone for anything)? Or McGovern? (A soft-brained left-wing nut who caters to every liberal special interest with ears.) Or Mondale? (Tax and spend.) Or Dukakis? (A soft-on-crime Bostonian wimp). Carter won, but then how can you push a deep-South Naval Academy graduate off the left end of the spectrum? And a born-again Christian to boot?
Did you hear all of the pre-election knife sharpening by the Limbaugh-ad hominem demagogues, the Republican whores dominating radio today? It was: “This guy (Gore) believes literally that the sky is falling. He is an environmental nut. He will close down our country. America will revisit 1929 with the tree spikers in charge.” Over and over and over.
Enter Nader, attacking Gore for being too similar to Bush, for failing to really follow through on his environmental promises when the rubber meets the road. He does so on Jay Leno, on Letterman, and he visits all 50 states, getting substantial ink and attention. Now how does that affect the standard Republican “he’s a left wing nut” approach? Not as much traction. How do you paint Gore as an environmental nut when a respected figure is excoriating him for over-compromising?
And, indeed, the Republican campaign did lose traction on the usual “Willie Horton” is loose approach, forcing them into promising to be compassionate conservatives. Ins-tead of moving Gore off the left end, they were forced to seek the middle — closer to the left themselves. They did so with some success, but they were on Democratic turf in this campaign, talking about the elderly, social programs and education. That Gore could not decimate Bush had nothing to do with Nader. Indeed, the Nader campaign created the setting for a strong Democratic candidate to dominate.
Look at the scale of direct votes for Nader (.6 percent) versus numbers influenced by spectrum positioning as the Republicans were somewhat impeded from pushing Gore off the left side. Without Nader, even a slight increase in Republican traction among this group overwhelms the .6 percent direct vote cost. Gore did not do badly among this group, and Nader is part of the reason. That is why Gore was in the race at all. The counterintuitive fact is: Without Nader, Gore loses by 3 to 5 million votes nationally and loses Florida by over 200,000. Look at history, the numbers, the scale of .6 percent versus the 20 percent swinging between the two candidates. Look at it objectively.
Certainly Nader tried to garner more votes and could make a difference were his vote to exceed 10 percent, as Perot helped elect Clinton. But if Nader is below 8 percent, the Democrats should pay him to run.
Meanwhile, the small number of new voters Nader brought to the polls appears to have made the difference in about 20 races, including three senate races giving Democrats control there, and 17 house races, bringing the Democrats closer there. We rarely hear mention of that.
Gore lost because his party is dominated by the same special interests generally ascendant, and because of his lackluster performance in the debates, his lack of fire, his non-resonant message, his subservience to the campaign professionals, his record in promoting the media monopolies now dominating the land, his failure to expose Bush as the puppet of the oil-baron crowd. These are the factors that mattered.
The Democrats are similar to sports enthusiasts generally — when your quarterback stumbles, it is tempting to blame the referee or the turf, or the weather, or here perhaps the left guard pulling back too fast and tripping him. But usually when your quarterback stumbles, it is he who is responsible. If this team is to win, it needs to blame others less and pay attention to the draft — and perhaps to the need for new team ownership.
Professor Robert C. Fellmeth [HLS ’70] is the director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego School of Law.