Dear Professor Etzioni,
Thank you for the open letter to “progressive non-voters” that you published as a paid advertisement in the New York Times on October 25, 2020.
You make a compelling case that “the good [Joe] Biden may do [if elected] may be limited,” but “the harm that [President] Trump will inflict [if re-elected] is unlimited.”
We take issue, however, with your assertion that “[a] few thousand votes for Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election.”
You are not the first to make this assertion – indeed, the New York Times and other news media routinely report it as a matter of historical fact – and yet, upon scrutiny it appears to be unfounded at best, and probably false.
Your unstated assumption is that if Nader had not run as the Green Party candidate in 2000, then a majority of the 97,488 votes he received in Florida would have gone to Gore, thus delivering Gore a win in the Electoral College and the presidency. But consider the study published by Michael C. Herron and Jeffrey B. Lewis, two political scientists who considered it “obvious” that Nader caused Gore’s loss. After reviewing the evidence, they were surprised to find that “at most” 60 percent of Nader voters in Florida preferred Gore to Bush, while “at least” 40 percent preferred Bush to Gore. And even this equivocal finding, they conceded, is biased in Gore’s favor, because their data came exclusively from ten heavily Democratic counties and thus omitted a substantial number of Nader voters who preferred Bush to Gore. So the true split, according to academics who shared your assumption, is closer to 50–50.
The truth is that no one knows what those 97,488 Nader voters in Florida would have done, much less how the election would have turned out, if Nader hadn’t run. Some Nader voters would have voted for Gore, but others would have voted for Bush, others would have stayed home, and others would have voted for one of the other seven presidential candidates on Florida’s ballot.
Now let’s broaden the focus by considering the additional consequences that would have occurred if Nader hadn’t run. For example, how many disaffected progressive voters did Nader’s Green Party campaign mobilize, who ended up holding their noses and voting for Gore? Nader consistently polled higher than 5 percent during the election, but received only 2.74 percent of the vote – a margin of difference that translates to a few million votes. Based on your assumption, these erstwhile Nader supporters must have defected to Gore, correct? In fact, that is what professor Solon Simmons found in his voter turnout study: Nader’s candidacy caused a statistically significant “mobilization effect,” the result of which was that “some large number but small proportion of the Gore vote would not have voted for Gore had Ralph Nader not been in the race and reminded them what a left agenda could feel like.”
An accurate assessment of Nader’s impact on the 2000 presidential election must also account for all the independents who voted for Gore only because Nader was in the race. How so? By running to Gore’s left, Nader enabled Gore to position himself more credibly as a centrist, and to capture a larger chunk of that all-important constituency. In effect, Nader’s Green Party candidacy neutered the standard Republican charge that the Democrat was a left-wing extremist – a line of attack to which Gore was particularly susceptible given his penchant for environmentalism and big government solutions. How many independents would have swung from Gore to Bush if Nader hadn’t run? Law professor Robert Fellmeth estimates that figure to be between 5 and 10 million nationwide, including “a lot more than 100,000” in Florida alone. In other words, without Nader in the race, Gore would have lost both the Electoral College and the popular vote.
One might quibble with Professor Fellmeth’s numbers, but the larger point that he and Professor Simmons raise is unassailable: the claim that Nader cost Gore the election by dividing the progressive vote relies on selective facts and disregards all evidence to the contrary. The Herron and Lewis study, for example, is often cited as proof that Nader cost Gore the election, but it assumes away almost every other possible outcome. It assumes that if Nader hadn’t run, each of his 97,488 Florida voters would have voted either for Gore or Bush, that none of them would have stayed home, none would have voted for one of the other seven presidential candidates on Florida’s ballot, and all other voters nationwide would have voted as they actually did. But these aren’t reasonable assumptions. Without Nader in the race, the entire dynamic of the election would change, and as Fellmeth and Simmons show, there’s good reason to believe Gore would have received even fewer votes.
To be sure, all Americans – not just progressives – face a stark choice on November 3rd. But the progressive case for electing Biden over Trump is stronger when it is grounded in fact rather than conjecture. And even in this era of “alternative facts” progressives have no shortage of actual, verifiable facts to marshal in support of their preferred candidate – whomever that may be.
Rather than focusing on the negligible electoral impact of minor party and independent candidates – who have historically played a vital role in our two-party system by championing new ideas the major parties wouldn’t touch, such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the 40-hour work week, social security, the graduated income tax, opposition to the war in Iraq and Medicare for All, to name a few – progressives should make the National Popular Vote plan a top priority. Twice in two decades the Electoral College has delivered the presidency to candidates who lost the popular vote – George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 – and it may do so again in 2020. The National Popular Vote plan is not a panacea, but it would be a significant step toward a stronger, more representative American democracy. Ultimately, the goal should be an electoral system that produces democratic outcomes while enabling all citizens to vote for the candidates who best represent their views.
Founder and Legal Counsel
Center for Competitive Democracy