Duking It Out in the Naderhood

Duking It Out in the Naderhood

As Bush and Gore battle for the Northwest, Nader’s power grows.


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.

Early on, the Nader campaign had to face a strategic choice: Build a “rainbow,” or at least a “blue-green” coalition, or go a more independent/populist route. Underresourced and understaffed, the Nader campaign chose the first option, basing much of its work on politically friendly college campuses. Less outreach was extended to more mainstream, less ideological, but equally disaffected groups. Nader campaign officials insist, however, that the disaffected Nader voters are out there and will come through for their candidate. Says Dan Johnson-Weinberger, the Nader staffer tasked with outreach to independent voters, “Across the country we are getting a broader base of support–more middle-aged, ex-urban, suburban types who maybe don’t agree with Ralph on universal healthcare but distrust the major parties, hate things like NAFTA and trust us because they know Nader is better on political reform than Gore.”

All of which brings us to the second question: Out of whose hide is Nader’s Northwestern vote–whatever its ultimate size–coming? The Democrats insist the Nader vote is a direct drain on Gore and that any vote for the Greens is one more for Bush. “Nader’s approach is reprehensible, irresponsible and reckless,” says Neel Pender, executive director of the Democratic Party of Oregon. “We have to get out the message that Nader could elect a Bush administration.”

Johnson-Weinberger scoffs at the assertion. “It’s true that when we peaked right before the Democratic National Convention in August we had a lot of support from liberal and progressive Democrats,” he says. “But we dropped in the polls precisely because after the DNC so many liberal Democrats were ready to shack up one more time with a disappointing candidate. Those folks are gone now.” Allan Hoffenblum, a West Coast GOP consultant, arrives at a like conclusion. “The Nader vote isn’t going to help Bush at all,” he says. “Al Gore, beginning with his populist speech at the convention, has been masterful in bringing the liberals who were leaning toward Nader back into the fold. And such a tight race right down to the end means that trend will continue.”

Numerous polls, both regional and national, bolster the notion that Nader has less of an effect on Democrats than might be assumed. A recent Evans/McDonough poll for Seattle’s KING-TV revealed that in that state only 40 percent of likely Nader voters are Democrats. Another 40 percent are independents. And 20 percent are Republicans. A recent tracking poll conducted by Zogby International for Reuters/MSNBC between September 29 and October 3 showed Nader drawing a decreasing amount of his support–from 35 percent earlier to 25 percent now–from Democrats, an increasing amount–from 40 percent earlier to 50 percent now–from self-defined “independents” and a more or less steady 20 percent from Republicans.

It also seems that the most committed Nader supporters have reached a point where they are so willing to see Al Gore defeated that it’s nearly impossible to imagine them voting for the Vice President in any last-minute bout with lesser-of-two-evilism. Says Joe Keating, issues coordinator of the Oregon Wildlife Federation, “We are comfortable with the possibility of Bush winning because of us. It’s a threshold we have to cross someday if we ever want substantial change and want to flex our muscles and show that the environmental movement can decide an election.” He adds, “If Bush wins because of us, you can bet the Democrats will be scurrying afterward to redefine their links to the environmental movement. The cost of that is totally acceptable.”

The Bush campaign, meanwhile, is making a full-court press to snatch these two states. Some $3 million in pro-Bush TV ads has soaked the Seattle and Portland markets. And the Bush/Cheney team has made a half-dozen campaign swings through the region. Both states feature a relatively liberal and urbanized West Coast and a very conservative rural eastern area. The Bush strategy is to squeeze Gore by simultaneously making an anti-environmental pitch to rural voters while trying to peel off as many votes as possible in the more moderate suburbs.

Bush balanced both pitches in one four-hour period during a recent Northwest foray. Speaking to a stage-managed “town hall” gathering in the high-tech Portland suburb of Beaverton, he carefully honed his talk to appeal to voters who were just as likely to go with the Democrats. He slammed the Clinton/Gore Administration for overseeing what he called an “education recession” but, eschewing a favorite GOP punching bag, uttered not a single disparaging word about teachers’ unions. “You can’t pay a good teacher enough money,” Bush said to loud applause. And what about vouchers? The word simply never came up. Asked about the environment during a question period, Bush answered, “You don’t have to subscribe to Al Gore’s philosophy to care about clean air and water.”

But a scant two hours later, the same George W. Bush was rallying a crowd a few hundred miles north at the Spokane airport, and he was, frankly, talking way out of the other side of his mouth. One of the hottest Northwestern issues this campaign season is what to do about four dams on the Snake River, which cuts through Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Environmentalists and Nader have called for them to be breached to give a highly endangered species of native salmon a better chance of survival. Gore has waffled, saying that while he would not let the salmon become extinct, he would first call a “summit” of environmentalists, landowners and industry representatives. Bush, however, was unequivocal. Telling the crowd that he felt a kinship for them as “hard-working, God-fearing, family-raising families,” he vowed that “if George W. Bush becomes President, the dams will not be breached.”

Gore, for his part, has spent very little time in the conservative strongholds east of the Cascade Mountains; his strength is in the more urban areas. But in many ways, the Northwest is a perfect fit for him and his message. Vast numbers of middle- and professional-class Californians have left their big cities over the past decade and flocked to the suburbs of Portland and Seattle. Socially liberal and economically conservative, they warm to Gore’s emphasis on quality-of-life issues, from gun control to clean water to less sprawl. And Gore’s vow to fight for a prescription drug plan is not lost on the large numbers of retired and elderly. Here, just a short drive from Canada, there’s an acute awareness of how much cheaper those prescriptions are just across the border.

In Oregon Gore is benefiting from the fact that a number of hot-button conservative issues, including two proposals that would strip unions of their ability to use membership funds for political action, are on the ballot. These have inspired unions to gear up for what might be their most serious election-time field mobilization ever. “Al Gore is not at all a hard sell to our membership,” says Tim Nesbitt, head of the Oregon State Labor Federation. “What we need to do is make sure people get registered and then actually vote. Sixteen percent of the state work force is unionized. But if we work hard enough, we can get the union vote up to about 25 percent of the total.” Nesbitt readily recognizes that sympathy for Nader undercuts some of his efforts. “He’s causing some problems on our fringes,” Nesbitt says. “Nader’s definitely attracting some of our members who are most active on issues of trade and corporate power. He’s making it tight for us, no question.”

Nader causes problems not only among the labor rank and file but also among environment-minded youth. The Gore campaign recently dispatched senior environmental adviser Katie McGinty to Portland State University with the task of bringing straying Greenish youth back into the Democratic fold, part of a Gore campaign strategy of registering 3,500 new Gore voters on the Portland State campus alone. Wisely, given the skeptical crowd, McGinty argued for Gore from a lesser-of-two-evils position. “The decisions you are about to make are not just about the next four to eight years; they are, rather, generational,” she told the crowd, warning that Bush would pack the Supreme Court with “nine Antonin Scalias” and that his administration “would sell off all of the national parks.”

But the audience wasn’t buying the fear tactic. All but one of the questions from the floor were openly challenging and hostile: Why doesn’t Gore disassociate himself from Occidental Petroleum, which is involved in drilling Indian lands in Colombia? Why does Gore dip into oil reserves to keep gas prices low instead of calling for conservation? Why have Clinton/Gore tolerated so much cutting of timber on public land?

And then one young man asked how someone like him, torn between Gore and Nader, should eventually decide his vote. “People should always vote their conscience,” McGinty answered, but then went on to give a rather political definition of what conscience means. “So I ask people to really deeply examine their moral conscience,” she said. “They have to ask themselves, if they like Nader, do they like him enough to want three more Scalias on the Supreme Court.”

Later that day at lunch, the tough-talking vice chair of Oregon Democrats, Maria Smithson, was considerably more direct. “The Nader vote is problematic for us,” she said. “We have to shave down that vote by clearly repeating our message. And that message is that the vote before us is not a vote of conscience. It’s a vote of consequence. Not conscience, but consequence.”

Nader supporters, for their part, argue that no vote is more consequential than precisely that: a vote of conscience. “If we want our legislators to vote their conscience,” Nader says, “then we must vote our conscience.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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