Duking It Out in the Naderhood
Given the fact that this city played host to last year's anti-WTO street battles, it should come as little surprise that it became the venue for one of the largest Ralph Nader for President events of Campaign 2000. Nearly 10,000 people, paying $10 a head, jammed the indoor Key Arena and hooted, stomped, applauded and waved Let Ralph Debate! posters as the Green Party candidate unreeled one of his trademark stemwinders. "Sometimes the safest thing to do is to take a chance," Nader said in one of the evening's most direct appeals for votes. "And the riskiest thing to do is to take a dive, a dive from your conscience."
The September 23 gathering was only one in a string of ongoing coast-to-coast "nonvoter superrallies," a last-minute campaign strategy brainstormed by a pair of Nader Raider protégés who are now successful lawyers. "Al Gore would have to go to U-Haul to rent a crowd this big," Texas populist Jim Hightower told the delighted Seattle crowd. A few days before, Nader had drawn 12,000 paying supporters to a Minneapolis rally that the Los Angeles Times conceded was the single biggest event of any candidate's campaign this year. An October 13 event was scheduled for Madison Square Garden. "Something needed to happen to show people they are not alone," says Portland-based Greg Kafoury, one of the superrally strategists. Referring to Fidel Castro's legendary mountain base, he added, "This is like a guerrilla war, and for us the Northwest is our Sierra Maestra."
As the campaign moves into its final weeks, it is precisely in this corner of the country where Nader is showing his greatest strength. He is nudging 6 percent in Washington and approaching 8 percent in neighboring Oregon. (And those numbers may be rising. After the first presidential debate, from which Nader was excluded but in which neither Gore nor Bush was seen as having turned in a strong performance, Nader's standing rose, hitting 5 percent or more in some national polls.)
How well the Nader campaign does here on the Upper Left Coast--and this is where he did the best in '96--could have a huge impact on the presidential race. For the first time since 1984 these two generally pro-Democratic states, with a total of eighteen electoral votes, are up for grabs, with barely a point or two separating Al Gore and George W. Bush in statewide polls.
In that context, two crucial questions arise for all three presidential campaigns. The first question is: Just exactly who do those nearly 10,000 people who paid to cheer Nader in Seattle, and another 10,000 or so who did the same in Portland, represent? That is, how broad is regional support for Nader? The Naderites want to know if the crowds are just the tip of a nonlikely-voter iceberg of the type that carried Jesse Ventura into the Minnesota statehouse in 1998 and that could float Nader at least into lower double digits here in November.
The second question is: How much will the Nader vote hurt or help the campaigns of Gore and Bush? For those progressives and leftists torn between voting for Nader or Gore, the anguish is double-dose: Voting Green in this two-state "Naderhood" could--for better or for worse--really make a difference.
The first question is tough to answer, in part because Nader has garnered so little institutional political support. In Washington only two labor locals, the Greater Seattle Postal Workers and the reform Teamsters Local 174, have endorsed him. In Oregon, a state bubbling with environmental groups, only two, the militant Cascadia Forest Alliance and the Oregon Wildlife Federation, have come on board. Lack of such support reduces the number of foot soldiers available for a campaign--not to mention voters themselves. But the most optimistic of Nader supporters, like former talk-show host Phil Donahue, co-chair of Nader's national support committee, are convinced that the lack of endorsements won't make a difference. "Prepare yourself for a big surprise in November," Donahue says. "Millions of ordinary unionists and everyday environmentalists and young voters who have never been called by a pollster are going to turn out and vote for Ralph Nader no matter who has or hasn't endorsed."
Each time Nader addresses one of the arena-sized gatherings, he makes an appeal similar to the one he made in Seattle: "If everyone here tonight would just call forty other people and get them to vote Green, we'd carry the state of Washington." The good news for Nader is that the kind of people who show up to these rallies are committed and passionate activists who, to a person, seem more than willing to make 40 or 50 or 200 phone calls. The bad news for Nader is that when they make those calls they may wind up talking to the people who were sitting in the row in front of them. Attending one of these Nader rallies is a mixed experience: stratospheric levels of passion and excitement but an inescapable feeling of narrowness. Nader may have the most energized core supporters--but he may have only a core.