Ralph Nader’s “Spoiler” Legacy

Desiree Santos ( SCR ’19)

Spoiler: A person who obstructs or prevents an opponent’s success while having no chance of winning a contest themselves. Typically applied to third-party candidates, this term has most recently been associated with Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. In an election cycle where the two mainstream candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, were the most disliked candidates in the nation’s history, frustrated voters sided with these third-party candidates in droves; had Hillary Clinton been able to capture the support of these third-party voters, she likely would have been able to capture the presidency[1]. For example, if only Dr. Jill Stein’s votes in each state were added to Clinton’s totals, Clinton would have been able to flip the outcome in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – enough to bring her electoral votes count past the winner’s benchmark of 270[2].

In February 2016, possibly the most infamous spoiler in American history visited the Claremont community: Ralph Nader. As a part of the Scripps Presents speaker series, he was interviewed by Emmy award-winning journalist Giselle Fernandez at the Garrison Auditorium in front of hundreds of students and Claremont community members. Despite his intention to visit Scripps as a part of the promotional tour for his new book Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think, the topic of conversation quickly shifted to the topical elephant in the room and his biggest controversy: the 2000 election. Nader, a longtime political activist, was the official candidate for the Green Party that year. It has been alleged by some that his candidacy took away a critical number of votes from Democratic nominee Al Gore, paving the way for George W. Bush to become President of the United States[3]. This allegation is known as the “spoiler” theory. This concept accuses third-party candidates of impeding an opposing candidate’s success while the third-party candidate has no actual chance of victory. This controversy and resentment towards Nader persist 17 years later.

Proponents of this “spoiler” theory accuse Nader of selfishly campaigning in battleground states where he had practically zero chance of winning[4]. Given that Nader’s stated goal in the election was to win at least five percent of the popular vote (so the Green party could secure federal funding in the next election), he was advised to campaign in densely populated, guaranteed blue states such as New York and California. This way, he could meet the federal funding threshold without thwarting a hopeful victory for Al Gore[5]. Nader instead continued to campaign in swing states such as Michigan and Florida well into the final weeks of the campaign[6]. Unfortunately for Gore voters, Nader ended up performing better than expected. In Florida, the swing state that handed Bush the Presidential victory, Gore lost by about 537 votes. In Florida, Nader got 100,000 votes[7]. “Spoiler” theory proponents assert that had Ralph Nader withdrawn his candidacy, or at least made the decision to not campaign in Florida, the Green Party’s liberal-leaning base would have mostly voted for Gore instead, allowing Gore to win Florida[8]. Advocates of this this theory believe that Nader’s candidacy is at least partly responsible for Gore’s loss.

Ralph Nader, however, claims that “spoiler” theory is just a desperate attempt to use him as a scapegoat for Gore’s embarrassing defeat[9]. Everyone has a right to run for president, and telling someone that they cannot run for president because they’re a third-party candidate is a restriction of First Amendment rights[10]. At his Scripps talk, Nader asserted that the Gore campaign made catastrophic strategy errors, and that it is not his fault that Gore was so unpopular that he lost his own home state of Tennessee[11], which Bill Clinton was able to win in both 1992 and 1996[12]. There are also polls that cast doubt on the notion that Nader votes in Florida would have gone to Gore, finding that had Nader not been a candidate, up to 62 percent of his voters would have voted for Bush or stayed home on election day[13]. “Spoiler” theory also denies Americans of the right to vote for whoever they feel best represents their interests, whether a major-party candidate or not. Nader assured the Claremont community that Gore’s loss was not the result of any third-party candidacy, but, rather, the effect of the Democratic nominee’s inability to earn the support of the American people[14].

Though the “spoiler” theory debate is divisive, both sides seem to stem from the same belief that the Electoral College is a broken voting system. Nader admitted to the Claremont community that it is ridiculous that the United States is a country where a candidate can lose the popular vote, yet win the election. Though the Electoral College may ensure that rural states are not ignored, it appears to go against the core principle of democratic elections: one man, one vote. Though throwing around the “spoiler” label may make it easier to cope with a major candidate’s loss, it runs the risk of camouflaging the structural issue in how the United States elects its President.

[1] Watkins, Eli. “How Gary Johnson and Jill Stein Helped Elect Donald Trump.” CNN. Cable News Network, 25 Nov. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[2] See 1.

[3] Scher, Bill. “Nader Elected Bush: Why We Shouldn’t Forget.” RealClearPolitics. 31 May 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[4] See 3.

[5] Burden, Barry C. “Ralph Nader’s Campaign Strategy in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election.”American Politics Research 33.5 (2005): 672-99. Harvard University. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

[6] Zuesse, Eric. “Ralph Nader Was Indispensable To The Republican Party.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[7] See 6.

[8] See 6.

[9] Nader, Ralph. “Ralph Nader: Calling a Third-Party Candidate a “Spoiler” Is a “Politically Bigoted Word”.” Interview by Amy Goodman. YouTube. N.p., 19 Sept. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[10] See 9.

[11] Fernandez, Giselle, and Ralph Nader. “Ralph Nader in Conversation.” Garrison Theater, Claremont, California. 21 Feb. 2017. Interview.

[12] “Tennessee Presidential Election Voting History.” Tennessee Presidential Election Voting History. 270 To Win. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[13] Chait, Jonathan. “Ralph Nader Still Refuses to Admit He Elected Bush.” Daily Intelligencer. New York Magazine, 20 June 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[14] See 11.

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