Eight years ago, Sally Soriano helped pull off one of Ralph Nader’s end-of-the-campaign “super rallies” in Seattle. Thousands of people showed up, cheering and chanting as much for Nader’s “politics of joy and justice” as for Eddie Vedder. When she remembers it, Soriano–now Ralph Nader’s campaign manager–grins wider than Barack Obama. “It was unbelievable.”
On Thursday, Soriano and the smallish staff of the Nader/Gonzalez campaign walked into a much smaller event in the basement ballroom of Washington’s Mayflower hotel. (Matt Gonzalez, a former Green Party member of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, is Nader’s running mate this year.) A tiny but ambitious group called Free and Equal had invited Nader and any other presidential candidate who was on enough state ballots to theoretically win the White House to a “real debate.” Nader and Chuck Baldwin of the far-right Constitution Party signed on; the other candidates passed. The man of the left who was filling arenas eight years ago took a night to face a C-Span 2 camera, several foreign news agencies, and ninety chairs for spectators. What happened between 2000 and now to make Nader’s audience so small?
“It’s the political climate,” Soriano says. “It’s been interesting how some of the people who were in the streets in Seattle, fighting against the WTO can convince themselves to vote for Kerry or Obama. They fall right in line.”
It’s one of the paradoxes of election 2008. If no one is happy with Congress, no one is happy with the president and voters grumble to pollsters about the two parties, it should be a breakout year for some political force. CNN’s jowly populist Lou Dobbs spent most of the year fulminating about a third party that could challenge the Big Two on illegal immigration. Before he settled on his current path as a mayor-for-life of New York, Michael Bloomberg daydreamed about a third-party run. This summer, in a happy fluke, the Greens and the Libertarians both nominated former members of Congress from Georgia with sizable media profiles: Cynthia McKinney and Bob Barr.
There were big-media moments. In September, the four leading third-party candidates–Nader, Baldwin, McKinney and Barr–were invited to a press conference with Ron Paul at which the Republican iconoclast would introduce four principles they’d all agreed upon. Barr passed at the last minute, and an enraged Paul eventually just endorsed Baldwin. Multiple organizations tried to set up third-party debates, but none could get all the candidates on board. Before the Free and Equal debate kicked off, McKinney released a paranoid statement alleging that “one campaign…has selected the date of the debate, the structure of the debate, the venue of the debate [and] the moderator of the debate.” (Free and Equal call this “completely false.”) The Barr campaign slammed Free and Equal’s haphazard scheduling. As millions of Americans were voting early and mailing in absentee ballots, the third-party candidates remained obscure.