What Went Wrong for Ralph?

by Micah L. Sifry

NewsForChange.com, November 28, 2000


Two-point-seven percent.

What happened? Why didn't Ralph Nader get the five percent that polls suggested lay in reach, as late as the weekend before the election? And regardless of the final vote, what did his campaign accomplish? Where did it fall short?

Based on comprehensive interviews with Nader and much of his core campaign staff, along with an array of Green activists and others who intersected with the campaign over the last year, some early conclusions can be drawn.

First, what the Nader campaign accomplished, on its own terms: "We got on 44 state ballots [including Washington, D.C.], raised almost $8 million, mobilized 150,000 volunteers, started 500 local Green groups and 900 campus chapters, and brought in one million new voters," said Theresa Amato, Nader's campaign manager. "Ralph raised his agenda for a working democracy in fifty states, and we were the only campaign talking about issues like the death penalty, fair trade, campaign finance reform, universal health care, and media concentration. We trained a new generation of activists to follow through on the Seattle movement, gave great visibility to the Green Party and highlighted some of its local candidates. And we raised awareness of the corrupt Commission on Presidential Debates, filed two lawsuits against it, and also brought nine lawsuits seeking to open up state ballot access."

It's an honorable list. Nader ran a serious campaign that carried forward the torch of reform lit earlier in the year by Republican John McCain, adding his own distinct anti-corporate critique and challenging many Americans to consider their stake in fostering a "deep democracy."

While many Democrats and their liberal interest group allies are consumed with vitriol for Nader's renegade campaign, a few calmer heads have recognized his impact on the election and the future. After all, he did get more than 5 percent of the vote in 11 states (and D.C.) and more than 4 percent in 7 others -- giving him the potential to be a swing vote in perhaps 100 Congressional districts.

"We are witnessing the birth pangs of a reform movement in America intent on ending the corruption of our democratic system by money," former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich observed in the current issue of the American Prospect, adding that "this is the hour for reform, not recrimination."

From the right, historian Kevin Phillips noted in the Los Angeles Times that the combined vote for Al Gore and Ralph Nader was 52 percent, the highest since LBJ's 1964 landslide. "Nader and his voters may now be what George C. Wallace was after in 1968: a pivotal force to be courted," wrote Phillips.

But while the first draft of history is still being written, it's worth taking a close look at the course of Nader's campaign. It may be that nothing could have been done differently or that external conditions beyond the campaign's control mattered more than anything else. Certainly, no one could have predicted that Patrick Buchanan would put in such a weak performance -- especially after polls last year showed him drawing into the low double-digits as a third-party candidate. (Though, ironically, it appears that Buchanan "cost" Bush more states -- Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin -- than Nader did Gore, assuming for the sake of argument that every one of their voters would have gone to the major party candidate.)

Had there been a genuine four-way race, with a four-way debate, Nader might have avoided the ugly endgame with the Democrats which dominated his campaign's final weeks. And, certainly, no one thought the race between Gore and Bush would be so close -- another factor that ultimately depressed Nader's vote totals.

"The most disappointing thing to me," Nader said during an hour-long conversation just before Thanksgiving, "was the way the polls shrank. They gave every indication to me of holding, going into the last weekend before election day, even surging in some places." He sighed. "There's this psychology among voters not to stray from the major parties."

Nader blamed that mindset for his disappointing totals, along with the fact that the so-called Molly Ivins Rule -- whereby fence-sitters in "safe states" were urged to support the Green candidate -- was mostly a failure.

"People don't think about the electoral college at all," he complained. (Well, that was then!) Obviously, what Nader and many other people misjudged was the reluctance of many liberals to abandon the Democratic party, and the effectiveness of the Gore campaign's scare tactics in the final weeks of the election.

Still, a full postmortem requires an honest look at the mistakes the Nader campaign made on its own, ranging from its late start, weak vice-presidential candidate and problems created by the Greens, as well as the stumbles of an inexperienced staff that didn't maximize the campaign's message. Finally, it's worth questioning whether Nader was too "left" or too "Green" a candidate to reach most voters -- a topic of great importance if he and the Greens are to prosper in the future.

Last Into the Pool

The first error, and the biggest, was starting so late. While Nader had told a few people (off the record) as early as June of last year that he would run, he didn't begin hiring a campaign manager until early 2000, and his official announcement wasn't until February 21st. The result was a cascading series of blown deadlines and late starts on everything from ballot access to fundraising, compounded by Nader's decision to spend most of the first three months of his campaign -- from mid-March to mid-June -- flying around the country keeping his promise to campaign in all fifty states.

It wasn't until late July that the funds really started pouring in, enabling Amato to triple the staff to over 100 by the end of August, including hiring field coordinators in many states.

It was, in effect, as if the Nader campaign didn't really get out of first gear until Labor Day. Asked in mid-October about what he would have done differently, Nader admits he should have started earlier, but isn't so sure how much better things could have been.

"If we had started in November, it would have been better, but I'm not sure the intensity could have been kept up with some people," he said, adding that it would have been hard to get out the campaign's radical message so early in the political season -- especially during the primaries, when many of the mainstream candidates were touting their reformer credentials. "Too many people were giving (campaign donations) to (Bill) Bradley and McCain. That opened up substantially after March."

The consensus of Nader's inner circle is different. "Tactically, we were at a disadvantage starting late," Amato concedes.

A Part-time VP

A second internal problem was the fact that the campaign had, essentially, a part-time vice-presidential candidate in longtime environmental justice activist Winona LaDuke, who had her third child early this year. Her presence on the ticket was obviously reassuring to hardcore Greens concerned Nader would neglect their broader platform in his efforts to focus on corporate power and democracy issues. But while Nader in fact stood pretty solidly with the Green platform throughout the campaign, LaDuke was nowhere near as active on the campaign trail as the head of the ticket. Her absence sometimes angered and confused women who came to rallies expecting to see her speak.

Picture the alternative of someone like African-American scholar and Nader-backer Cornel West stepping in to fill her shoes, potentially broadening the Greens' appeal to more people of color. West came out for Nader in August, after having stumped actively for Democrat Bill Bradley. The day before Election Day, after he and Nader spoke at Al Sharpton's headquarters in New York City, I asked him if he could imagine running for the vice president with Nader. Laughing heartily, West said "Now that's something I could wrap my mind around, my brother!"

Amato doesn't deny that LaDuke had a part-time role. But, she says, "She had done more than she had committed to Ralph to do. And she did have other commitments."

The Greens: A Blessing or a Curse?

Some of the campaign's day-to-day difficulties flowed from its relationship to the Greens, who brought their own unique combination of enthusiasm and amateurism to the effort. One close Nader adviser rattled off a quick list of issues: "First, the timing and location of the convention [in Denver in June] screwed the campaign out of plenty of matching funds [which are only available until a party nominates its presidential candidate]. We could have held it in September. And why not hold it in New York or California, where more people would have attended?

"Second, in lots of places there was little focus on the presidential campaign, with Greens more interested in local issues like animal rights or power lines.

Third, the 'Super Rallies' were a success despite the Greens. We'd give them a bunch of tickets to sell and they'd stick them on the side of the table. In many places, they haven't made the transition from being a debating society to being a political party.

"Fourth," the advisor noted, "I don't know who put out that statement on the Middle East and what they thought they were doing." Indeed, the Association of State Green Parties issued a release October 24th endorsing a United Nations resolution condemning Israel's handling of the Palestinian protests and calling for an end to U.S. aid to Israel until the country agrees to withdraw from the occupied territories and recognize the Palestinians' right of return. The statement went beyond Nader's own position on the conflict -- he is against any immediate aid cutoff, and has only talked about phasing down economic aid to the country, citing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support for the notion.

Needless to say, the ASGP's statement was quickly added to anti-Nader propaganda being circulated by Jewish Democrats -- including vicious e-mails that not only gratuitously pointed out Nader's Lebanese heritage but also claimed his father had refused to serve Jews in his Winsted, Connecticut restaurant. The result? According to the Voter News Service exit poll, Nader only received one percent of the vote of a very liberal minority that had earlier disproportionately supported his candidacy.

Then there was the inexperience of the campaign staff, which showed in every department. Some field staff were hired haphazardly, the campaign's Web site languished for months and campaign manager Amato was more of an administrator than a strategist.

These sorts of problems crop up in all kinds of seat-of-their-pants campaigns, and while painful, they don't have to be fatal. But indecisive leadership and sloppy work in Nader's headquarters led the candidate to unleash his legendary aptitude for micromanaging. After some press releases were sent out with typos, for example, Nader insisted on personally approving every outgoing communication -- dramatically slowing reporters' ability to get timely responses from the campaign.

Media Confusion

The team's flaws were most noticeable when it came to getting the campaign's message out. There's no question the mainstream media was disdainful of the Nader campaign until the end. With a few exceptions -- USA Today, the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, the Hartford Courant, and ABC News -- Nader was nothing more than an occasional feature story. The New York Times set the tone with its sneering editorials and skimpy news coverage. But with some creative campaigning, Nader might have been able to break-through this media brownout.

Despite pressure from several close supporters and campaign advisers, however, Nader refused to elbow his way into front page-hogging sagas like the Elian Gonzalez war or Texas' controversial execution of Gary Graham -- even though in both cases he had an excellent opportunity to distinguish his stance on the issues from those of Bush and Gore. For Nader, these stories were distractions from his core message about corporate power and its stranglehold on American life.

Since he couldn't count on the automatic daily coverage that is a perk of being a major party candidate, Nader needed to continually find targets that could both illustrate his message -- we need to save democracy from corporate power -- while also affecting the larger Gore-Bush horse race upon which nearly all of the media coverage was focused. He hit the occasional bulls-eye, such as a trip to East Liverpool, Ohio, where for eight years protesters have ripped Al Gore's broken promise to prevent the opening of an incinerator cheek-by-jowl with a public school. But most of the time Nader's message was more diffuse and less "newsworthy."

Nader also never really succeeded in crafting a more positive message from his relentless critique of the status quo. While he listened to those who urged him to speak more to the "joy" in his avowed "politics of joy and justice," he frequently fell back into a well-worn groove of excoriating the major parties -- particularly the Democrats, for betraying the party's ideals.

Nader was also distracted by personal attacks -- the New York Times in particular got under his skin -- which sometimes blurred his focus, as did his tendency to speak too long, testing the patience of his most adoring crowds. His flip remark that Roe v. Wade would simply 'revert to the states' if overturned by a Bush-stacked Supreme Court didn't help either, in dispelling the fears of many liberals. Anti-Nader Gore-ites like Gloria Steinem had a field day with it.

Strong Ad Campaign Never Happened

All of these stumbles still don't fully explain why Nader was not better prepared for the inevitable tendency of third-party leaners to melt way on election day. In this regard, the campaign made a strategic mistake when it failed to budget and raise enough money for a substantial ad run in the last two weeks before Election Day. "You need a field campaign, absolutely," says Bill Hillsman, the Minnesota ad whiz who produced Nader's TV and radio ads. "But this was a case where we never reached critical mass with TV and radio. Our message never made it out to the independents in the suburbs. It was all focused on college campuses and urban centers."

Nader himself was never thrilled about having to buy TV ads -- in my first conversation with him a year ago about the emerging campaign he refused to commit to even doing broadcast ads, hoping as he was to run the whole thing on a combination of grassroots organizing and free media coverage. And he was unimpressed when his campaign spent $800,000 broadcasting the critically-acclaimed "Priceless" ad (a parody of MasterCard's famous campaign) during the August convention season, pointing out that "our poll numbers went down afterwards."

Others in the campaign argued that those ads -- which drew secondary media attention after a humorless MasterCard sued -- kept Nader on the playing field during the onslaught of convention coverage, and that his numbers went down because Gore began stealing his populist rhetoric, starting with his nomination acceptance speech.

Nader disagreed, even after the election. "The clutter of ads at the end were staggering," he said. "The Democrats spent $8 million in Michigan alone." He prefers to point to places where extensive grassroots campaigning by local Naderites had a big impact. "We got 14 percent in Great Barrington and 33 percent in Sheffield" -- two towns in liberal western Massachusetts -- "where we had two people going neighbor to neighbor for six months."

Most of America is not like western Massachusetts, however, culturally or even geographically. Mass political movements need to be organized, yes, and that takes tens of thousands of individuals doing the hard work of talking to their neighbors. But those people need to be motivated by the sense they are part of something larger than themselves -- a sense an effective national ad campaign might foster. As Hillsman says, "going from zero to five percent is much harder than going from five to fifteen percent." Noting Nader's reluctance to put more money into media, Hillsman concludes "I was never sure about how committed the candidate was to getting the five percent (needed for federal matching funds in '04)."

The lack of paid media may have tilted Nader's itinerary in the final weeks more toward swing states. The campaign had decided that, in aiming for at least 5 percent of the vote, it needed shore up its base in those states where the ticket was already polling above that threshold -- a strategy which meant going into some battleground states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. The campaigners also believed they would drop out of the news if they only went to "safe" states like Texas and New York.

To be sure, Nader did not get into the presidential race hoping he would have a free and easy ride -- i.e., winning five percent of the vote without affecting the Bush-Gore contest. It was clear he wanted to teach the Democrats a lesson by hurting Gore, and the campaign never pushed the "safe" states message as hard as it could have. On the other hand, if all Nader had wanted to do was deny Gore the election, then he simply would have rented a bus and campaigned solely in his strongholds in the Midwest and Northwest, rather than taking multiple trips to New York and California.

In any event, the campaign had only about $200,000 for paid media during the last two weeks, precisely when a host of Gore allies ranging from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and NARAL were spending millions on ads directly attacking Nader and suggesting a vote for him would elect Bush. And if there's one rule of thumb in politics today, it's that an attack on television must be answered on television.

Nader did have a good response in the can -- an ad produced by Hillsman depicting kids contemplating their future (a parody of a Monster.com ad) that evoked the campaign's essentially humanistic and uplifting purpose. But Nader worried that the ad would be seen as exploiting children and that as a longtime opponent of commercialism and commercials aimed at kids, he would be attacked as a hypocrite. Precious time was lost as the campaign debated what to do; the ad finally ran here and there, but only in the last four days of the election.

Less than Three

And so he ended up with 2.7 percent. But all of this nit-picking begs a more serious question: Regardless of any fine-tuning that could have been done on the Nader campaign, is it possible he was just headed in the wrong direction? Specifically, should he have run as less the progressive prophet scolding the right-drifting Democratic party and more as the maverick independent, zeroing in on the buy-partisan political establishment? Especially as it became clear that Buchanan was not going to siphon off many right-wing votes from Bush, leaving a leftist Nader in a much more exposed "spoiler" position? Had Ralph mistakenly traded his "civic" armor built over decades for a "green" suit that didn't fit?

Consider that in 1992 when Nader campaigned in the New Hampshire primary, asking voters to write his name in "as a stand-in for 'none-of-the-above,'" he received 2 percent of the Democratic vote AND 2 percent of the Republican vote. This somewhat surprising appeal across party lines was reflected in the large crowds who came to his rallies, ranging from middle-aged men with gun racks on their pick-ups to young professionals bothered by high real estate prices to the familiar pony-tailed Birkenstockers. He had recently led a successful populist uprising against Congress' attempt to vote itself a pay raise and his stock was high on talk radio dials across America.

More recently, he continued to make odd-bedfellow alliances on issues ranging from global trade agreements to getting Channel One out of public schools (on which he worked with Phyllis Schlafly). But in the 2000 campaign, Nader came out as a full-blown progressive, taking strong positions on the death penalty, the military budget, health care, gay rights, labor organizing, racial profiling, reparations for slavery, hemp, Palestinian rights -- you name it. And while he focused on a set of issues surrounding corporate power and democracy that could appeal to a independent skeptic, he saddled himself with the mantle of a fledgling social democratic party whose core base is mostly crunchy granola.

"I always framed things as an appeal to traditional values," Nader insisted, when asked if his campaign wasn't too much like 'Noam Chomsky for President.'" "I would define the corporatists as the extremists, pointing out their exploitation of children and commercialization of childhood, for example. I was always careful to appeal to conservatives."

Perhaps. But exit polls show Nader's support came predominantly from the left side of the spectrum; obviously, conservatives weren't hearing him.

Ultimately, there may be a hard lesson here for those of us seeking a way out of the two-party duopoly. Yes, the mythic party of non-voters outnumbers that of the Democrats and Republicans, and is potentially more radical. But there are also many independent voters who are open to new choices beyond Tweedledom -- and these people vote more regularly than typical 'non-voters.' Thus it may make more sense to build a third-party campaign as an independent-populist play rooted in the "radical middle" that came out for Ross Perot in 1992 and Jesse Ventura in 1998.

Such a strategy doesn't have to mean jettisoning progressive principles -- indeed most of these speak to the majority of Americans when they are framed as appeals to fairness, justice and democratic empowerment. But it does mean taking very seriously the need to speak to Americans where they are, without expecting them to come all the way over to the progressive side of the box on their own.

Nader's gamble was that his 37 years as a citizen advocate, his convincing fight for the "little guy" and his defense of civic values over corporate values would transform the Greens into a new kind of populist/social-democratic party. Clearly that didn't happen -- or at best, it is only beginning to happen. Instead, in this campaign, Nader became a "green" -- and despite his best efforts that term by itself still doesn't resonate with most Americans.

Micah L. Sifry's book on third parties in American politics will be published next year by Routledge.

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