The Sanders/Nader Comparison and Healing the Damage of the Primaries

by Neil H. Buchanan

A bit of a mini-debate has emerged recently among pundits over whether Bernie Sanders will be to Hillary Clinton in 2016 as Ralph Nader was to Al Gore in 2000.  Politico published a long-ish article making this claim ten days ago, and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post weighed in on the issue the next day.  A simple Google search of "sanders nader" turns up multiple hits on the issue.  (For what it is worth, Nader himself has had good things and not-so-good things to say about Sanders this year.)

One of the reasons that I want to weigh in on this question is that I firmly reject the premise of the analogy, which is that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000.  Not only do I reject that claim now, but I rejected it from the very beginning, as I will explain momentarily.  Even so, I have reluctantly come to agree with the conclusion of that analogy, which is that Sanders and his supporters are now significantly increasing the likelihood that Donald Trump will be the next president.  No matter what one thinks about 2000, it now seems clear that we could see an even worse result in 2016.

Most people who lived through the nightmare of the 2000 election and its aftermath have at least a passing familiarity with the Democrats' case against Nader.  He ran a deliberately negative campaign against Gore, asserting repeatedly that the Republicans and Democrats were virtually indistinguishable on the issues, and in the end Nader supposedly cost Gore just enough votes to tip the election to Bush.

This counterfactual story has some support in the data.  Although Gore won the popular vote notwithstanding Nader's presence on the ballot, Nader's votes in both Florida and (we often forget) New Hampshire were enough to make the difference between the two major candidates.  If Gore had taken either state, he would have won the presidency.

Many Democrats to this day become enraged even thinking about Nader in 2000, and they take it as gospel that he alone is the reason that we were stuck with George W. Bush for eight years.

The usual version of this story is that Nader did this unintentionally, in the sense that he did not set out to make George W. Bush president, but he was willing to risk that outcome in the name of his own ambitions/goals.  An alternative claim is that Nader tried to hand the presidency to Bush, and that Nader was "secretly ecstatic" about having done so.  I find this implausible in the extreme, but it is at least possible that it is true.

In any event, the central assumption in either story is that Gore would have won if Nader had simply dropped out when it became clear that Nader's candidacy could make the difference in the election.  Much ink has been spilled on the question of whether Nader's voters would have voted for Gore in sufficient numbers, if they had voted at all, to guarantee a Gore victory.  That story is anything but airtight.

As strange as it seems for a Nader voter to vote for Bush, after all, it is possible that at least some of his voters would have been willing to guarantee Bush's election to try to spark a revolution.  (Even though I find that claim implausible when applied to Nader himself, it is easier to imagine sufficiently large numbers of Nader's supporters adopting such a nihilistic stance.)

To me, however, all of that counterfactual navel-gazing is based on far too static a view of the situation.  At some point, the story goes, Nader would have dropped out (and presumably either endorsed Gore or at least said that a Bush presidency was unthinkable), and all of the people who actually voted for Nader would then vote mostly for Gore, while the remaining eligible voters -- Bush voters, Gore voters, and non-voters -- would do exactly what they did in the actual election.

This never seemed plausible, even in the run-up to the election in the late summer and fall of 2000.  At that time, increasingly panicked Democrats were calling almost daily for Nader to drop out.  They were, of course, ignoring the bad campaign that Gore was running, especially Gore's decision to distance himself from Bill Clinton.  At a time when Arkansas and West Virginia were still quite plausible Democratic target states, a Clinton push in either place could have provided the extra electoral votes that Gore needed.  (That Gore lost his home state of Tennessee is also a long-forgotten inconvenient truth.)

The Gore people would surely claim that their decision to sideline the sitting president was ex ante a wise strategic choice, because it was still unknown whether Clinton's post-impeachment bounce in the polls was translatable into actual votes in a general election.  The understandable worry was that even if Clinton could nail down Arkansas's six votes for Gore, having Clinton in the news could have soured swing voters elsewhere, moving some battleground states that Gore eventually won into the Bush column.

That is the fun of counterfactuals, and it is exactly my point about Nader.  There are more moving parts in this little machine than "total votes for Nader in Florida."  No matter when Nader dropped out, that would have been huge news.  And the news would not have been spun positively for Gore.  With Karl Rove running things on the Bush side, and with the mainstream press so obviously leaning against Gore (writing stupid stories about his clothing consultants, and repeating the lie that Gore claimed to have invented the internet), what would the post-Nader-withdrawal story line have been?  "Gore makes secret deal with Nader to win election."  "Nader tries to help desperate Gore campaign."

If anything, the Gore people needed Nader to stay in the race so that they could continue to triangulate successfully.  Gore, trying to carry forward the ill-motivated agenda of the New Democrats, needed Nader as a foil.  The last thing he needed was for the political press to say that Gore must really be a leftist after all, which is exactly how Republicans and the pundits would have described anything resembling a backroom deal with Nader.

My conclusion, then, is that Gore could have lost badly if Nader had dropped out, because many of the swing votes that went for Gore could well have flipped to the "compassionate conservative" Bush in the maelstrom of accusations about Gore's supposedly revealed extremism.

I am certainly aware that mine is a minority view about the 2000 campaign.  I am also well aware that my story is as open to attack as any other counterfactual.  What I do find frustrating is the willingness of Nader-haters to make so many obviously incorrect simplifying assumptions in order to make the case that it was all Nader's fault.

All of which is to say that the SAT-style analogy -- Sanders is to Clinton as Nader is to Gore -- is based on an arguably false premise.  Ultimately, however, it is not necessary to reach a firm conclusion about 2000 to assess Sanders's impact in 2016.  Is he doing what many Democrats -- wrongly in my view, but nonetheless sincerely and emphatically -- believe Nader did in 2000?  Unfortunately, as I noted above, I am starting to think so.

Now, one could immediately point out that my description of Nader's role in 2000 (as what amounts to political cover from the left) could certainly apply to Sanders now.  Even setting aside any concerns about how Clinton might start moving to the right after Sanders is vanquished, it is not at all difficult to see the value in Clinton being able to present herself as the reasonable centrist among the three remaining candidates.  Republicans have a difficult task in painting Clinton as the crazy lefty-commie-socialist candidate when Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders is pounding on her from the left.

Moreover, as a recent column in The New Republic points out, Sanders might already be pivoting toward attacking Trump and away from attacking Clinton.  That column also suggests that Sanders actually is trying to guarantee that Clinton beats Trump, but that she does so by continuing to be a liberal rather than by becoming the center-right candidate that is her instinctive default position.

All of that makes sense, and it certainly explains why I join many others in supporting Sanders in his decision to stay in the race as long as possible.  The problem is that the general election will not be a three-way race (thank you, Michael Bloomberg!), and at that point people will be choosing between Trump and Clinton.  Although I agree with Sanders that Clinton has a better chance of winning -- and of being someone whom people could support enthusiastically -- with an unapologetically progressive agenda, the problem is that Sanders and his supporters have taken Hillary Hatred to a very disturbing level.

Going all the way back to the young Sanders supporter who told Clinton during a town hall in Iowa that "I’ve heard quite a few people my age that think you’re dishonest," the Sanders camp has been pushing the untrustworthy/dishonest trope fairly relentlessly.  Interestingly, Clinton's response to that Sanders supporter -- a response that is all the more impressive because it was unscripted and betrayed no sense of the pain that a person must feel when being called a liar -- precisely diagnosed the underlying problem.  As The Hill reported:
“If you’re new to politics, if it’s the first time you’ve really paid attention, you go ‘oh my gosh, look at all of this’ and say, ‘why are they throwing all of that at her’?,” the former first lady responded. “I’ll tell you why — because I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age. I’ve been fighting for kids and women and the people left out and left behind to help them make the most of their lives.”
And that is the real problem.  Even "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" has begun to point out that the young people who are supporting Sanders have crossed a line in their emotional rejection of Clinton.  (Watch this brilliant segment:

Those young people have no frame of reference, and all they know is that their hero has been saying really bad things about Hillary Clinton for months and months.  She must be evil, right?!  The same unhinged vilification is also evident in the attacks on the Democratic Party's leaders, including the ugly personal attacks on the Nevada state chairwoman after the recent caucuses there.

The point is that although the rough-and-tumble of primaries can generally be forgotten and the wounds allowed to heal over the summer, some wounds can be fatal.  The Sanders critique of Clinton reinforces the themes that the Republicans' attack machine has been repeating for a quarter of a century, making it understandable why Clinton's "negatives" in the polls are so high.

Sanders does not face the same problem that I described regarding Nader in 2000.  That is, Sanders is not running as an independent, so it will not seem suspicious when Sanders backs off from the Clinton attacks and joins forces with her.  When he does so, however, he has already made is own job more difficult.  Having told his legions of supporters that Clinton represents everything that is wrong with the country, he now has to get them to accept reality and support Clinton in November.

Sanders is capable of doing that, and I suspect that he will.  Even now, however, polls indicate that the anti-Clinton fervor among Sanders supporters is at historically unprecedented levels, with some Sanders supporters saying that they will vote for Trump and others saying that they will not vote at all.  Even if he thinks that he does not deserve to be blamed for that, Sanders needs to take responsibility for the healing that must happen as soon as possible.  We survived the presidency of George W. Bush, but we might not be so lucky this time around.