Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Can 3rd Party Votes Swing an Election? Revisiting Nadar in 2000.

Did Nader Spoil Gore in 2000?

Probably the #1 concern I hear about voting 3rd party is the potential for a spoiler. A spoiler effect is the phenomenon whereby voting for a 3rd party candidate on one end of the left-right spectrum splits the vote and hands the election to the mainstream candidate on the opposite end of the spectrum. For years people said the odds are low enough to dismiss. Then came the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election.

This is a topic that gets some people very upset and emotional, but let’s look at it as pragmatically as possible. Let’s start with the facts everyone agrees on.

The 2000 presidential election was an extremely tight race, with Gore winning the popular vote 48.4% to 47.9% and Bush ultimately winning the electoral vote 271 to 266. The deciding factor came down to Florida where results were so close that Gore called for a hand recount, which dragged on from Nov 8 to Dec 12. A 5-4 US Supreme Court decision would ultimately call off the recount with Bush winning by 537 votes, a margin of only 0.009%.

The Green Party, represented by Ralph Nader, had carried 97,488 votes in Florida, more than enough to have given Gore the win if the Green Party hadn’t been on the ballot.

But wait! You can’t just assume that everyone who voted for the Green Party would have voted for the Democratic Party had the Green Party not been an option. The overlap between the Democrat and Green Party base has been frequently overestimated by left-leaning commentators. The bias is easy to explain: a Democrat is more likely to know a fellow Democrat who “jumped ship” to the Green Party, than a former Republican who made the same leap.

Yet exit polls confirm that, although the Green Party is less of a “Democrat siphon” than popularly supposed, they did disproportionately lure voters who would otherwise have voted for Gore. National Nader “second choice” exit polls showed 47% Gore, 21% Bush and 32% no vote. Nader himself cites Florida exit polls that said 38% of his supporters would have voted for Gore, 25% Bush and the rest would have stayed at home - still more than enough for a Gore victory.

But wait! The number of Floridian surveyed who voted for Nader and also gave a valid “second choice” was only 264 people. That’s an awfully small sample size! Speaking of which, a frequently-cited CNN exit poll showed Nader supporters preferring Bush, but if you check out the raw data yourself, you’ll notice the poll’s sample size of Nader voters is… 30. All the “Greens-were-conservatives” defenses I’ve found swirling about the internet are based on survey answers from these 30 people out of almost 100,000. To call that a representative sample size is more than misleading, it's unethical. So then, isn’t it possible that we just don't have enough polling data to draw conclusions?

Well, a couple people agreed, and conducted an extensive ballot-level UCLA study. They actually went through the original ballots casts for Nadar and individually looked at what other choices the voter made beyond the selection for president. They then built up a mathematical model that compares these choices to the ballots that were cast for Gore and Bush to find left-leaning and right-leaning trends. Despite mistakenly being cited as evidence in Nader's favor by some, the study’s conclusion was clear:

“How do our results stack up against conventional wisdom, which holds that Ralph Nader spoiled the 2000 presidential election for Gore? We find that this common belief is justified, but our results show clearly that Nader spoiled Gore’s presidency only because the 2000 presidential race in Florida was unusually tight.”

At this point, the case is pretty much closed, but let’s go ahead and examine that last conditional statement, “…only because the 2000 presidential race in Florida was unusually tight.” So, it would be extremely unlikely for a similar spoiler effect to show up in multiple states, right?

Well, though it certainly got far less media coverage, Florida wasn’t the only state to see a 3rd party spoiler effect in the 2000 race. New Hampshire, which also could have swung the election in Gore’s favor, saw the Democrats losing by 7,211, a gap that could have been closed by the Green Party’s 22,198 votes. And, of course, right-leaning 3rd parties can have the same effect on the Republican side. In New Mexico, Pat Buchanan’s Reform party spoiled Bush. Gore won by only 366 votes, even less than the difference in Florida! It didn’t get widely reported because New Mexico’s 5 electoral votes wouldn’t have altered the outcome of the election.

So spoiler effects can’t just be dismissed as exceedingly rare flukes - especially since modern U.S. presidential elections have shown a tendency to be relatively tight. (The widest spread in the national popular vote in the last six elections was 7.2%.) This is, in part, a well-documented consequence of winner-takes-all 2-party systems. And the chance of a spoiler goes up (until you approach a 3-party equilibrium), when the 3rd parties has a larger vote share, as they do in the current 2016 election.

But anyway, overwhelming evidence suggests that if the Green Party hadn’t run a candidate for president in 2000, Gore would have won the election.

That’s enough to satisfy me that any responsible voter MUST consider the non-negligible possibility of a spoiler effect when choosing to vote 3rd party.

I’d be happy to stop right there.

But that isn’t enough for many people.

They also have to know, “Was Nader responsible?” I warn you, down that path lies madness. But if you want, while we’re already on this topic, read on.

The Blame Game

In defenses of Nader the same central argument appears again and again and again: Nader can’t be blamed for Bush winning the 2000 election because other factors could've just as easily or more easily changed the outcome in Florida. The margin was so narrow! It is a logical fallacy to claim Nader didn’t cause a spoiler effect based on this reasoning, but on a moral or philosophical level, deciding whether Nader deserves to be blamed or whether it makes more sense to spread the blame around, is actually kind of a fascinating question.

So let’s explore some of the other targets that we could also blame. But before we even get started, I want to say that I think there is absolutely some validity to all of these. So for those of you who just really need to hear that Nader was not the only one to blame, you can save yourself some reading.

1) Gore lost the election for himself

There are a lot of variations of this. Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, which Bill Clinton had carried in the previous two elections, and Clinton's home state, too, for that matter. He failed to capitalize on the Clinton-era strong economy. He chose controversial Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate. Voters found his personality stiff and uninspiring, his debate performance off-putting and his campaign boring. In Florida, he failed to capture the senior vote and the oft-Democratic white female demographic by margins that led to his defeat.

The “Gore is to blame” argument is a compelling one, and fits with my own sense of justice. The election was Gore’s to win or lose. His policy and campaign issues were his own. His performance on TV, in rallies, during speeches and in debates were his own. He clearly gave it an honest shot, but he made mistakes.

In the man’s defense, unless someone can send me a citation to prove otherwise, Gore never blamed Nader. In his rather classy concession speech he said he accepted his responsibility and would move on. And it’s worth pointing out that he did.

But let’s not underplay the fact the Gore actually won the popular vote. More Americans wanted Gore to be the president than any other candidate, including Bush. And, though we will likely never know for sure, many studies demonstrate persuasive evidence that Gore rightfully should have won.

2) Miscounted ballots, confusing ballots and computer errors robbed Gore

As for miscounted ballots, this New York Times piece exhaustively (and exhaustion is the operative word), covers the balloting mess. It’s pretty boring, so I’ll summarize:

Bush would have won even if Gore had gotten his original demand: a hand recount of the votes in 4 of Florida’s 67 counties under existing ballot classification. Gore could have won with a complete Florida recount. Gore almost certainly would have won if they’d applied the “intent of the voter” standard, accepting undervotes (the voter marked their preference but in a way the machine failed to read - remember hanging chads?) and/or overvotes (the voter marked Gore and also wrote his name down as a write-in).

One thing that remains a mystery to me is why ballots from voters who chose Gore were disproportionately among those uncounted. Were the ballot-counting machines used in Democrat-leaning poorer counties older, cheaper and more prone to error?

And then some have also argued that the ”butterfly” ballots were confusing.

Finally, you really have to want this one, but there were allegedly some suspicious computer anomalies that night: a faulty memory card uploaded 16,022 negative votes for Gore in a county with 600 voters. Sounds a little conspiracy theory-esque for my taste, but when computer errors and human error team up, you never know.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court decision, which I’m coming to next, notes that about 2% of votes (2.1 million) go uncounted each year “for whatever reason.”

3) A Supreme Court ruling robbed Gore

On the evening of November 8, 2000 the Florida polls closed with Bush having a margin of 1,784. The margin was narrow enough to trigger an automatic machine recount, and although at least 5 counties never did, the margin shrank to 327. Gore then requested a hand recount in 4 counties, which Florida election law permits.

Pressured by her party, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris moved, entirely within the law, to certify the original results before the recounts could finish. Gore took her to the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered, 4-3, a statewide hand recount. Only a day later the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 split we’ll see again shortly, halted the recount while it deliberated the now infamous Gore vs. Bush case.

Bush’s lawyer, Theodore Olsen (who was rewarded with the position of Solicitor General for his work), argued that the recount was unconstitutional because there was no single standard for assessing the validity of ballots, theoretically violating the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th amendment. Gore’s lawyer, David Boies, argued that the single standard was simply the “intent of the voter.”

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court agreed that this was not enough. (In Judge Steven’s dissent he would argue that “intent of the voter” was no less sufficient than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” clause in trial decisions.)

But what wasn’t clear was what to do about it. Four of the Justices argued that the logical solution was to remand the case to the Florida Supreme Court with an order to define “intent of the voter” and then continue with the recount. But the five-Justice conservative-leaning majority abruptly ruled that the recount would be called off to meet the deadline implied by Title 3 of the United States Code.

The decision was widely criticized. According to Stanford Law Professor Pam Karlan, “A court that believes that the real problem in Florida was the disparities in the manual recount standards, rather than the disparities in a voter's overall chance of casting a ballot that is actually counted, has strained at a gnat only to ignore an elephant.” Or, in other words, the court caused the uncounted ballots to be treated equally by simply throwing them all out.

Many smelled partisanship. University of Chicago Law Professor George Stone points out that the ruling was remarkably uncharacteristic of Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas: “As a group they cast more votes (three, to be exact) to uphold the Equal Protection Clause claim in Bush v. Gore than they had previously cast in all [46] of the non-affirmative action Equal Protection Clause cases that they had considered in the previous decade.” Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz agrees, “the court's majority let its desire for a particular partisan outcome have priority over legal principles.”

Once more returning to Steven’s dissent, “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” You can also read Breyer’s dissent and Souter’s.

A few people have risen to the Court’s defense on the grounds that they felt pressed for time and were clearly worried that dragging things out would undermine the legitimacy of the eventual winner. But in their combined dissent, Stevens argued quite the reverse, “Preventing the recount from being completed will inevitably cast a cloud on the legitimacy of the election.”

4) Democrats who voted Republican are to blame

In Florida alone there were 191,000 self-described liberals and 308,000 registered Democrats who voted for Bush. Why aren’t they being blamed?

Florida is a closed primary, meaning that in the primary a person can only vote for the party with whom they are registered, so many independents and tactical voters register for a party not aligned with their actual politics. Also, Florida leaves it up to the voter to send in paperwork if they want to change their official party, which many people will never bother to do.

I am not, by any means, suggesting this accounts for all 308,000, but I do think the number misrepresents the degree to which Democrats “betrayed the party.”

As for self-described liberals, who knows what they were thinking? I don't have a defense for them, but I will note that significantly more "self-described conservatives" voted for Gore. Crossing the party line is relatively common, and healthy in an open-minded society, and it worked in Gore's favor overall.

But I do think these voters should be blamed. If people give them a free pass, I assumed it's because, ballot confusion aside, those voters got what they wanted from their vote.

5) People who didn’t vote are to blame

Oh, trust me, I blame these people. All 5 million+ in Florida alone. More than half the voting age population didn’t vote in 2000; an especially bad year (although not the worst). My opinion is, if you don’t vote (but were eligible), you have lost the lion’s share of your right to complain.

But since I’m going to give everyone a fair defense, I will point out that we have no way to know which way these non-voters would have cast their ballots. Even if they had all voted, Gore might not have won.

6) Why not blame any of the 7 other 3rd parties, all of whom got more than 537 votes?

Any one of the seven other 3rd parties got enough votes to swing Florida, technically. They were, in order, the Reform, Libertarian, Natural Law*, Workers World*, Constitution, Socialist* and Socialist Workers* parties. Of those, the four with asterisks almost certainly drew heavily from the left.

I’m not sure why they weren’t blamed other than that Nader was just by far the most prominent example. He had more than 42 times as many votes as the next highest left-leaning party, the now defunct Natural Law party, best known (unfairly) for advocating transcendental meditation to solve national problems.

7) Ralph Nader actually is at fault

If you’ve made it this far you might have come to the conclusion that I don’t like Nader. However he is, in truth, one of my favorite activists and one of the first to truly inspire me. I’m a fan of Nader’s platform, his consumer advocacy and his books. His central thesis, that corporation pose perhaps the greatest threat to democracy today, is one I still agree with. A part of me admires Nader's determination, zealotry and idealism, even at their most self-destructive and megalomaniac.

In part because I respect Nader’s intelligence, I will not claim that he couldn’t or didn’t know the risks he was taking. There is a reasonably solid case that Ralph Nader knew exactly what he was doing and deserves to blamed.

In the weeks leading up the election a group of Nader's colleagues called "Nader’s Raiders for Gore" sent Nader an open letter and took out newspaper ads warning Nader and his supporters of a possible spoiler effect. I found a lot of claims that Nader broke a promise not to campaign in Florida, which was known to be hotly contested. I can find no evidence Ralph Nader ever made that promise. However, Nader admits he said, "I'm not going to go out of my way to go into the swing states."

But in the final days of his campaign he chose to focus on battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Nader would later claim he only wanted to hit the 5% mark to secure federal campaign matching funds, so then why visit states where the odds of prying loose votes were especially unfavorable? His unsatisfactory response has been that he wanted to follow the other candidates into every state.

He also rejected a plea to support vote trading, a scheme that could have helped him reach 5% without risking a spoiler effect. Even without Nader’s endorsement, people tried to vote trade anyway, which could have saved the election for Gore. Republicans noticed what was going on and declared it a criminal act, leading to the websites being shut down until the court declared vote trading legal 7 years later.

Anyway, throughout the campaign, Ralph Nader, as verified by Politifact, essentially said it didn’t matter if Gore or Bush won. The most famous example being, “The only difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door.” Nader did sometimes admit that Bush was the greater of two evils, but claimed the liberals exaggerated the differences, although in retrospect, Bush was far worse than anyone predicted.

Along the campaign trail, Nader’s rhetoric against Gore became increasingly harsh. Nader called him a coward, whose supporters had “a servile mentality.” Nader attacked Gore and his RFK Human Rights Award winning book Earth in the Balance, in the following diatribe documented in letters Nader sent to the Sierra Club environmental organization, “Earth in the Balance, Gore's script for his reemergence as a national politician was an advertisement for his calculated strategy and availability as an environmental poseur, prepared to attract, barter and mollify environmental support for corporate cash. As a broker of environmental voters on corporate terms, Gore is the prototype for the bankable, Green corporate politician.”

I frankly don’t see it. Despite some policy difference, some as sensible as siding with civil rights against the EPA for permit discrimination, Gore was and continues to be exactly the type of sincere, productive, environmental politician-activist that Nader should have been allying with, not tearing down. Gore went on to become the poster child for acknowledging and addressing climate change, writing the follow-up book “An Inconvenient Truth,” whose documentary adaptation won an Academy Award. In 2007 Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental advocacy.

I think it’s fair to suggest that Gore’s contribution to environmentalism is comparable to Nader’s, not that it should have been a competition. My point being, these guys had way more in common than not!

When Nader returned in the 2004 election, former supporters Bill Maher and Michael Moore begged him on their knees not to run. DNC chair Terry McAuliffe offered financial support for Nader's organization if he agreed not to contest 19 battleground states. Nader characterized these as bribes

Nader had a cordial meeting with Democratic candidate John Kerry and presented him with a list of issues he thought Kerry should highlight. In the documentary An Unreasonable Man, Nader says he offered to join forces with Kerry if he tackled three issues: ending corporate welfare, cracking down on corporate crime, and reforming labor law. Nader claims that Kerry turned on him instead. 

Nader ran as an independent in 2004 and saw an 84% drop off in votes compared to the previous election cycle. There are a lot of factors why that might be, but, whether fair or not, the backlash from his 2000 spoiler was likely among them.

Nader has done a lot to change the world for the better. I know you are probably linked-out by now, so let me remind you: the Clean Air and Water Acts, Wholesome Meat and Poultry Acts, OSHA, the Freedom of Information Act, Whistleblower Protection Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, Nuclear Power Safety, Safe Drinking Water Act. The act that created the EPA. Founding Public Citizen. Nutrition labels. Warnings on cigarettes and pharmaceuticals. Crash testing. Air bags! Seatbelts alone have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I would comfortably argue that Nader has done more good than many presidents.

But Nader never won an election, never even hit his goal of 5% of the popular vote (or even 3%), failed to get the Democratic Party to change its platform and widely confirmed the American public’s worst fears about a spoiler effect. So it’s worth asking, might there have been a more productive way to further his agenda than running a 3rd party campaign?


Probably the weather that day in Florida, or the traffic in some counties, or the locations of the polling stations, and what was on TV could also have swung an election that close. So where does that leave us?

I think all of culprits highlighted above are responsible on some level. We are all responsible for our country and each other, but we live in a society where the idea of taking responsibility, especially in such a complicated and often indirect sense, is considered academic at best and political suicide at worst.

If you want to get even more philosophical consider this: because George W. Bush won the election, he went on to lead the U.S. into the Iraq War based on the false contention that they had WMDs. Hundreds of thousands died. Do we blame Nader for that, too? Or just stick with the obvious target, Bush? But wait, Bush was relying on bad intelligence that someone fed him, so that guy’s really the one to blame, right? And so on down the rabbit hole...

I will end this post with an excerpt from Jeffrey Toobin’s book “Too Close to Call,” in which Gore calls Bush at 2:30 a.m. the night of the fateful election to do something that had never been done in U.S. history:

Gore: Circumstances have changed dramatically since I first called you.
Bush: Are you saying what I think you’re saying? Let me make sure that I understand. You’re calling back to retract that concession?
Gore: You don’t have to get snippy about it.
George Bush then told Gore that his brother Jeb Bush had assured him that he had won Florida.
Gore: Let me explain something: your little brother is not the ultimate authority on this.

And of course, neither am I, but I hope gathering all this info in one place has been useful to you!

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