Ralph really ran. Against the record of his own faux campaign of 1996, against the expectations even of friends who said he lacked the candidate gene and against the calculations of Democratic strategists who were forced to go from dismissing him to clumsily attacking the Green monster, Ralph Nader mounted a presidential campaign that in the closing days of the election defied the pundits’ tendency to consign most third party candidacies to endgame obscurity.
As political players began counting down the hours to voting day, Nader was thrust into the national spotlight by media that had long disregarded his candidacy. The man who had been prevented even from attending three dismal debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush found himself portrayed by a New York Times editorial as the “wrecking-ball” of the postdebate campaign. There was Nader, just days before an election to which he was supposed to have been an asterisk, staring ABC newsman Sam Donaldson in the eye and asking, “Do you think Gore is entitled to any votes? Do you think Bush is entitled? Am I entitled to any votes? We have to earn them. If Gore cannot beat the bumbling Texas governor with that horrific record, what good is he?”
Conscious of the Nader threat in states that had been securely married to the Democrats as far back as 1988 but began swinging in 2000, mainstream environmental and abortion rights groups diverted late-campaign energy and resources to scaring Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin Nader supporters into stopping Bush by abandoning the Green for the Gore. But the a-vote-for-Nader-is-a-vote-for-Bush drive ended up buying Nader millions of dollars’ worth of free media attention. And what voters saw was a Nader far removed from the stiff scold who launched his Green bid last winter. After watching Nader joust with news anchors desperately seeking to get him to abandon his critique of both parties and declare some hidden sympathy for the Democrat, conservative commentator George Will was heard asking when it was that Nader evolved into so able a candidate.
Nader’s focused, fact-based, unapologetic appearances were no surprise to hundreds of thousands of students, renegade trade unionists, angry family farmers, environmentalists, organic-food activists, campaign finance reformers, dissident Democrats and leaderless Perotistas who packed Nader’s “superrallies” from Oakland to Minneapolis to New York City. Those modern-day hootenannies raised some of the more than $5 million with which Nader’s campaign hired staff in virtually every state, developed a network of 900 campus coordinators, bought a few television ads and papered every coffee shop bulletin board from San Francisco to Boston with Green literature. For their contributions, those who rallied were treated to inspired performances by Nader backers Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder, crowd-rousing appeals from Jim Hightower and Michael Moore, arguments for a split from the Democratic Party by such progressive icons as Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich, and Nader addresses that bore less and less resemblance to college lectures and more and more to the populist orations of William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette.
On a Friday night in Iowa City, just days before the election, Nader arrived to find the University of Iowa Memorial Union overflowing with more than 2,000 cheering supporters. “The two parties have morphed together into one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup,” the candidate declared. The line was dutifully picked up by the Iowa City papers, which, like most local media, lavished front-page coverage on the man drawing some the biggest political crowds of the year. Unfazed by criticism from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and comedian Al Franken, who had appeared in town that day at a hastily scheduled Democratic rally, Nader said, “These frightened progressives say I’m undermining my own legacy of reform. What they don’t know is that the Democratic Party has already done it.”
Nader was introduced by one of the most prominent Democrats in Iowa, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, who explained, “I have worked for the election of Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman in 1948. I have received three presidential appointments from two Democratic Presidents. I have run for Congress from Iowa as a Democrat. I have served the Democratic Party at every level from local precinct chair to a Democratic National Committee task force. So it’s not easy for me, this endorsement of a Green Party candidate. But the corporate corruption that engulfs both major parties has now reached the stage when we cannot afford to wait any longer.”
But where does such a leap take Nader backers? If their candidate polls 5 percent or more of the national vote, the Green Party will receive at least $7 million in federal campaign funds. As Election Day approached, however, even some in the Nader camp worried that 5 percent earned at the price of a Gore loss might lead to a damning of the Greens that would make party-building difficult, if not impossible. In the final weeks of the campaign, Nader’s closest advisers debated whether to tailor their schedule to states where the race was not close–such as New York, where Gore is a prohibitive favorite–or to return to swing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where a strong Nader could undermine Gore. Pleas from swing-state Nader backers tipped the decision in favor of the go-for-broke strategy–even as vote-trading schemes like www.nadertrader.org promised Nader fans who agreed to trade Gore votes in states like Oregon and Washington for Nader votes in New York and Texas that they could get the best of both worlds: President Gore and 5 percent for the Greens.
But a good many Nader voters were disinclined to become election day-traders. Their enthusiasm had less to do with party-building than with raising a banner of protest and, perhaps, of faith in a vision of democratic participation. In the crucial swing state of Wisconsin, the village of Belleville took a pre-election break for its UFO Parade, an annual commemoration of a supposed Halloween visit by aliens some years back. Bush and Gore backers were no-shows. But there, between the Brownies and the Belleville Dairy Queen, were forty Nader supporters, almost all of them from nearby farm towns. They carried a banner reading ralph nader is out of this world and handed out packets of seeds with a reminder to “plant a seed for democracy on November 7.”
Grandmothers grabbed the seeds, children cheered “Nader!” And Dr. Cynthia Haq, the local physician, clapped as they passed. Torn between Gore and Nader, she said, “I know we’re supposed to be worried about Bush, and I am worried. But it makes me feel good to see the Nader people. There’s something that feels right about voting for what you believe, as opposed to voting against what you fear. I think that’s why a lot of people are sticking with Nader–no matter what.”