What Went Wrong for Ralph?
by Micah L. Sifry
NewsForChange.com, November 28, 2000
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
"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
"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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Micah L. Sifry's book on third parties in American politics
will be published next year by Routledge.