The 3% Man
"On tomorrow's Meet the Press, Green Party leader Ralph Nader will announce whether he will sit out the 2004 election or enter the race and cause George Bush to win by three votes. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say: Stay home, nerd. You're the reason we're in this K hole to begin with." -- Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, February 2004
As a wise frog once sang: It's not easy being green. Just ask twenty-year-old Barry University student Elizabeth Sebesta. She's spent the past three weeks canvassing her school's Miami Shores campus on behalf of presidential hopeful Ralph Nader, earnestly insisting that "we have to get rid of this two-party system run by corporations." The reaction hasn't exactly been a groundswell of encouragement. Republican students roll their eyes and walk away, while Democrats often angrily blame her candidate for throwing the 2000 election to George W. Bush -- and possibly repeating that scenario this November as well. Even Sebesta's own boyfriend, a U.S. Army paratrooper now stationed outside Baghdad, has been less than supportive. "I was really pumped and excited to be doing serious work for Nader and starting up a [campaign] chapter here at Barry," Sebesta recalls with a rueful chuckle. "I sent [my boyfriend] an e-mail." The reply came screaming back from Iraq through cyberspace: "What's wrong with you? What's happened to you since I left? Have you been brainwashed?"
Sebesta remains undaunted. Though her pitch may be lacking a certain degree of nuance ("Like, capitalists run our country, and we need to get rid of capitalism -- period"), she's counting her victories one vote at a time. Which is precisely what has leading Democratic Party officials just as panicked as Sebesta's (now ex-) boyfriend.
Ralph Nader himself is similarly upbeat. Speaking to Kulchur by phone from Phoenix while on the campaign trail, he points out that "in the year 2000 I spent only two and a half days campaigning in Florida." Still he received more than 97,000 votes here. So expect his face to become much more familiar to Miamians as November approaches. "We're starting a major political movement," he enthuses, "and pushing Democrats to become more progressive, because they'll be shown if they don't, they're going to lose votes."
And the Democrats' contention that he's merely a spoiler in the presidential race? "You can't spoil a system that's spoiled to the core," Nader replies. "You can't even count the votes properly in Florida. The Republicans are engaged in all sorts of shenanigans in Tallahassee and the Democrats aren't watch-dogging them. The Democrats have a lot of work to do inside their party before they spend their time hurling epithets at independent candidacies for the presidency."
Ralph Nader's 2000 electoral math is now the stuff of American history: In Florida, where Bush carried the state by just 537 votes, Nader received 97,488 votes (5355 of them from Miami-Dade County). In New Hampshire, where Bush carried the state by 7211 votes, Nader received 22,198 votes. Had Al Gore won either state, he'd be sitting in the Oval Office now. Moreover in several states where Gore prevailed over Bush by slim margins -- Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin -- the difference was dramatically eclipsed by Nader's totals in those states, an indicator of just how tight that contest was.
Nader insists he draws equally from both sides of the ideological spectrum, yet Voter News Service exit polls from Election Day 2000 reveal that had Nader not run, only between one-eighth and one-quarter of his supporters would have switched to Bush, while about half would have chosen Gore.
Chastened by this knowledge, liberals have supposedly returned to the Democratic fold en masse. The Democratic Party could have nominated a cadaver for president and they'd be cheerleading it on to victory. Nader derides that as chronic "ABB syndrome" -- anybody but Bush.
It's certainly easy to hear the chorus of disapproval for Nader's current bid from once-sympathetic quarters. Filmmaker and author Michael Moore has shifted from headlining Nader rallies in 2000 to publicly apologizing to Gore, while left-leaning journals such as The Nation have filled their pages with pleas: "Ralph, Don't Run!"
Crass realpolitik, as Nader himself charges? Perhaps. It certainly signifies an incredible amount of condescension from radicals who previously chanted power to the people. These critics seem to have little confidence in the strength of their own arguments for supporting Kerry, now viewing the Democratic faithful as little more than glassy-eyed children easily led astray by the appearance of Nader's name on their ballot, much like toddlers lured into a stranger's car by a piece of candy.
Michael Moore and his ilk do have good reason to worry. Far from encountering a backlash, Miami-Dade Green Party co-chair Steve Showen says Florida membership since the state's notorious election troubles has doubled to more than 7000, with similar developments nationwide.
Indeed December's San Francisco mayoral election saw Green challenger Matt Gonzalez losing to Democrat Gavin Newsom by less than 12,000 votes -- despite Newsom outspending Gonzalez ten-to-one and benefiting from a personal appearance by Bill Clinton. "Only in San Francisco can you be pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, pro-rent control, and be considered a conservative or moderate," Newsom griped to the New York Times. In that light, Newsom's subsequent issuing of marriage licenses to gay couples -- a move that took even the Bay Area's own gay community by surprise -- appears as much an act of moral courage as a shrewd gambit to shore up his left flank while preparing for re-election and a future national career.
America, of course, is not San Francisco writ large, but that should be little comfort to Kerry. Beyond the punditocracy, Nader's actual numbers show anything but an erosion of support. In a case of déjà vu, last week's American Research Group poll of Florida voters gave Bush 46 percent, Kerry 45 percent, and Nader 3 percent. A national Gallup poll for CNN gave Nader four percent of all likely voters, while a concurrent ABC-Washington Post survey put the civic gadfly at six percent across the country. Even if those results are inflated, it's worth remembering that Nader's impactful Election Day 2000 tally was only 2.74 percent of the electorate.
"In the last election he helped defeat the man who wrote Earth in the Balance, in favor of the candidate who wants to drill in the Arctic refuge," fumes Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox. "I hope he doesn't make the same mistake again."
Maddox may want to brace himself: The Green Party remains sharply divided on tactical grounds about carrying Nader's banner this time out (a decision to be finalized at its June national convention), but the Reform Party (headed by conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan in 2000) has already offered up its ballot line. And while Nader has made overtures to both camps, he's simultaneously gathering signatures to put his own newborn Populist Party on the ballot in key states.
"If a multiple number of parties endorse him, he's comfortable with that," explains Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese. "He has multiple choices for Florida. He will be on the ballot in Florida."
That declaration leaves Maddox downright exasperated: "Ralph Nader has broken faith with his own supporters. This year he does not represent a particular party or point of view, but is instead running for his own aggrandizement."
Ralph Nader has heard all this before. "Oh, so a Democrat has some criticism of me?" he sneers as Kulchur repeats Maddox's comments to him. "The more that people like Maddox go after our candidacy, the more they're telling us how decadent and decrepit the Democratic Party is. Why doesn't Scott direct his attention to the five million people who've already told pollsters they want to vote for our candidacy?" Nader continues, citing his campaign's internal data. "I would advise Scott Maddox to pay attention to the 250,000 registered Democrats in Florida who in 2000 voted for George W. Bush, instead of whining about the right of all Americans to run for political office."
If Nader sounds unusually confident, almost cocky, it may be that he knows time is on his side. The war in Iraq will be his wedge issue, he agrees. And his call for removing all U.S. troops in six months will clearly delineate him from both Bush and Kerry. "If the Iraqis see that there's going to be a pullout," Nader says of his peace plan, "more mainstream Iraqis will split off from the insurgents in huge numbers." He also wants U.S. contractors to leave, with truck-driving jobs going to unemployed and "resentful" Iraqis, not Americans. "We've got to let the Iraqis know that there's a plan for complete withdrawal, not building fourteen military bases and in effect dominating Iraq through a puppet regime."
Such a peace-in-our-time approach seems more likely to abandon the Iraqi people to the slender mercies of mullah rule, yet its simplicity is one that many antiwar activists find appealing. Meanwhile Kerry's refusal to cut and run from Iraq, his willingness to add even more troops if necessary, may be reassuring to those, like Kulchur, who see Iraq's democratic reconstruction as crucial in the larger struggle against radical Islamism -- regardless of Bush's original intentions or apparent machinations. But Kerry's stance is nothing short of maddening to the Baghdad-equals-Saigon crowd. This latter group may never grow past a shrill minority, but then Nader hardly needs to persuade a mass following. As he demonstrated in 2000, 2.7 percent of the voters will work just fine.
With that formula in mind, Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manager, recently sent a public letter to Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, practically begging her to "sit down with Nader right away before he siphons off progressive support that they need to win crucial battleground states." If a job with the Kerry administration is untenable, Brazile suggests, then at least proffer "advise and consent" power over appointments to the Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency -- whatever it takes to get Nader on board.
Some of Howard Dean's former staffers have gone one better, alleging that a West Wing employment offer is the true motivation behind Nader's entire candidacy. Speaking to the New York Daily News last week, former Dean strategist Paul Maslin said Nader had appeared ready to shelve his third-party bid in exchange for the vice presidential slot on a Dean ticket. In early December 2003, Maslin recalled Nader arriving at the Dean campaign headquarters in Vermont with several of his aides in tow. "It looks like you're going to get the nomination," Maslin remembers Nader saying during a private meeting. Nader then touted his own third-party presidential run as a strategic benefit to Dean -- "I'll be protecting your flank" -- before pausing to let one of his aides pointedly ask, "Has the governor given any thought to who he will name as his running mate?"
"It seemed to all of us like a prearranged question," Maslin said. "We all thought this was Nader's way of asking to be Dean's running mate -- or else. It was carrot and stick."
Kulchur puts the question to the man directly: So, Mr. Nader, did you ask to be Howard Dean's vice president?
"If there's a word to exceed completely false, I would use it," Nader answers sharply. "I hear all kinds of rumors. You wouldn't want to cite the New York Daily News for very much, would you? I'm not particularly enamored of their accuracy over the years, other than their sports reporting on the back pages."
Not that he didn't drop by Dean's Burlington HQ. "We visited them in Vermont just to pay our courtesy," Nader says coolly. "We talked about ways Mr. Dean's agenda could be more progressive. We had a good discussion."
Perhaps one of your aides inquired about the vice presidency, just out of your earshot?
"Not even close, not even close," he repeats firmly. Forget about any horse trading or backroom deals as November approaches, Nader insists, bristling. Rather his game plan is simple, from Florida to California: "To get as many votes as we can. Isn't that what candidates do?"
And if you happen to re-elect President Bush in the process, as the Democrats warn?
"That won't happen," Nader counters, his voice rising. "We're going to get more of our votes from independent conservatives and liberal Republicans."
Let's play devil's advocate. If George W. Bush is re-elected, will your presidential run still have been worth it?
"I'm not clairvoyant!"
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.