FOR NADER, NOT THE GREENS BUT THE BLUES
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- There are polls, there is wishful thinking and then there is the way people actually behave in the voting booth. The 2000 election provided some fascinating data about all three, data the pundits missed and which does not bode well for the Nader candidacy this time around.
The primary election of 2000 was unique in California history in that (follow closely here) every voter was allowed to vote for a member of any political party in each of the contests. Thus it was possible to be a registered Democrat but to vote for a Republican in the presidential race, a Democrat for the Senate, and a third party candidate for the local congressional seat.
It was a little weird in a way, in that you had to choose, office by office, which political party's primary you were going to participate in. As a nonaffiliated former Democrat, I voted mostly in Democratic contests but took a fling in the Republican contest for U.S. Senate.
It was loads of fun at the time. The system had been established by ballot initiative and was tried in the 2000 primary, but was later declared unconstitutional by the courts and has not been used since.
What came out of this process was something that ought to be fascinating to political junkies, but seems to have been overlooked for the most part. The votes from each political party were tabulated and published as separate statistics. (They are available on line at www.ss.ca.gov under election results.) I have yet to see the analysis of this vote in the popular media in terms of how the third parties actually function in our electoral system.
Here is a brief summary of what Green Party members actually did. Out of the slightly more than one hundred thousand registered Greens, 50,255 voted, and of these, 25,203 votes went to Green Party candidates. Democratic candidates got 16,489 votes from registered Greens, and even Republican candidates scored Green votes, taking 7886 in total.
In other words, what few Green Party voters there were behaved more or less like a moderately liberal cross section of unaffiliated voters, as they divided their votes among Nader, Gore, Bill Bradley and John McCain.
Without going through more numerics, we can see a similar story for other third parties. For example, Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne got 20,825 votes total, but only 8852 came from within his own party, with other contributions coming from Republican and independent voters. Among Libertarian Party voters, Republican John McCain actually got more votes than any Libertarian Party candidate.
In a state with fourteen million registered voters, this is not an impressive showing for wannabe political parties. Ralph Nader actually got 112,345 votes in this election. So where did the rest come from? Registered Democrats gave Nader another 49,941 votes, over twice the number that his own party conferred. Another 27,833 came from independent voters.
Admittedly, this is one election in one state, but the data that we have available do not speak well for the idea that any third party is building a base that will allow it to win substantial political power.
To the contrary, it is consistent with the idea that third party candidates offer a place for angry citizens to park their protest votes when they feel a strong enough urge to do so.
This leads to the next logical question, namely what sorts of protest votes might reasonably be expected to be cast this time around? When viewed in this light, the answer is not favorable to Nader. We get that story from Democratic primary election exit polling.
As widely reported, a large percentage of Democratic voters are saying that electability is the main qualification they are looking for. Many explicitly say that the ability to beat George W Bush is their first consideration.
Combine this with the observed increases in primary election turnout over a number of states and the conclusion becomes clear: There is a protest vote building up, but it is a protest against the current incumbent. A parallel protest against the system as a whole, as personified by Nader, does not seem evident. Nader's argument can be summarized that the current system is hopelessly corrupt and it doesn't matter all that much whether George W Bush or a Democrat is president. Primary voters seem to be disagreeing with this point of view.
Rather, voters in the recent primaries seem to be saying that they recognize a significant difference between the two major parties. Many of these voters seem plenty mad about it. The attitude that seems to be coalescing is one of taking first things first, where the highest priority is to defeat Bush.
For this reason, the modest media frenzy building over the Nader candidacy can and should be disregarded. The situation is not the same in 2004 as it was in 2000. One might say that a lot of people had to learn their lessons the hard way, but they have learned. This is probably the case even in Florida, where there will be fewer Nader votes and where a Pat Buchanan butterfly ballot vote will be an extinct species.
In one way, it is unfortunate that our media driven primary season has once again managed to avoid the questions that Nader (and so many others) put forth. There has not been much discussion this time around regarding the cost of running television ads in national elections. Perhaps the liberal side of the electorate is avoiding these formerly beloved issues because of the "first things first" attitude.
One serious failure of our media has been its failure to instruct voters in how to build reform movements. The ability of third parties to create effective reform movements is most unlikely considering the structure of the American political system, (in contrast with parliamentary systems).
In parliamentary systems, many parties compete for votes which translate into seats. Coalitions can form among several parties following an election. In the American system, coalitions have to be built within a majority party prior to the election. After all, the President is elected not by the Congress but in a national election.
This explains the propensity of third party candidates to function as spoilers (as Nader in 2000) as opposed to being coalition builders. It is something that is inherent in our governmental structure, but has not, sadly enough, been explained to American voters by our overly wordy but superficial cast of political analysts.
The American people seem to be figuring it out this time around, even as the lofty pundits have so far failed to explain it very well. Look for Nader to be at most a minor player this year.