Ralph Nader’s announcement of his latest tilt at the presidency promptly launched a fresh round of the parlor game called “spoiler” – this round arguing that Nader could cost the Democratic nominee the presidency in 2008, as he allegedly did in 2000.
Allegedly is the operative word. Whether Nader indeed cost Al Gore the presidency is less of an open-and-shut case than you might think. And whether we’ll see another storm so perfect that a 2.7 percent candidate can be even accused of tipping the balance is hardly a sure bet.
The spoiler claim goes like this: George W. Bush won Florida in 2000 by 537 votes. Nader had 97,488 there. We can’t be sure how Nader’s Florida supporters would have voted had he not been on the ballot, but in national exit poll data (necessary for a sufficient sample size), 47 percent said they’d have voted for Gore, 21 percent for Bush, and the rest would’ve stayed home. Divide the Nader vote in Florida that way, and inaugurate President Gore.
But wait. If you’re going to say Nader cost Gore a win in Florida, you might have to say the same thing about any of a list of lesser-known possible spoilers. David McReynolds, the Socialist candidate in 2000, got 622 votes in Florida. Give ’em to Gore and he’d have won regardless of Nader. Or give Gore the lion’s share of the Libertarian, Constitution Party or Natural Law Party vote in Florida, and get there that way.
But don't forget Pat Buchanan, the other free-lancer in 2000. He didn’t get enough votes to estimate where they’d have gone otherwise, but if you give all or most of them to Bush, you can do some serious theoretical mayhem. Buchanan got 17,484 votes right there in the Land of the Hanging Chad. And look beyond: In New Mexico, where Gore won by 366 votes, Buchanan got 1,392. In Iowa, Gore won by 4,144; Buchanan got 5,731. In Oregon, Gore won by 6,765, while Buchanan got 7,063 votes. And in Wisconsin, Gore won by 5,708 but Buchanan got 11,471. Give the lion’s share of those Buchanan votes to Bush and the Nader-in-Florida argument just might become irrelevant.
If this isn’t enough fun, start apportioning out the rest of the 2000 vote beyond Florida. Nationally, candidates other than Gore, Bush, Nader and Buchanan got a total of 593,078 votes. Out of whose hide? Go figure. But while you're at it don’t forget that Gore lost his own home state by more than 50,000 votes, raising the entirely plausible suggestion that it was Al Gore who cost Al Gore the 2000 election.
Part of the fascination with third-party candidacies (cue Mike Bloomberg) comes from farther back, 1992, when it’s alleged that Ross Perot tilted the election to Bill Clinton by swiping votes disproportionately from George H.W. Bush. In fact the national exit poll that year found that had Perot not been in the race his supporters would have divided evenly between Clinton and Bush, at 40 percent each; the rest would have supported someone else, or sat it out.
Perot got 19 percent of the national vote in 1992, the second-best showing by any independent in modern times. Nader’s been a different story. In 1996 he got seven-tenths of one percent; in 2000, without Perot as an alternative independent candidate, 2.7 percent; and in 2004 Nader bottomed out at just under four-tenths of one percent, 465,650 votes out of 122,295,345 cast.
With numbers like these, Nader could end up looking less like a spoiler and more like Harold Stassen, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1948, 1952, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992. But the math on that is tough in its own way: The day after tomorrow, Nader turns 74 years old.