Did Nader spoil the 2000 election?

The 2000 US presidential election was unprecedentedly close: Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore split electoral votes 246–266, leaving a single unaccounted state, Florida, with 25 electoral votes up for grabs.

In Florida, Bush was declared winner on the basis of his popular vote plurality margin of 537 votes. The common claim is that the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, by attracting tens of thousands of votes from overwhelmingly liberal voters, “spoiled” the election in Florida. While it is true that the Nader voters would likely go to Gore over Bush had he not run, blaming Nader for losing the election misses several factors that could have swung the election.

  • The flawed election procedures (voting machine faults resulting in incorrect vote counts) delayed the result, resulting in Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’s unilateral decision to declare Bush winner on the basis of popular vote and to halt any further recounts, unprecedented to date. The decision was upheld in the Supreme Court, with Republican appointees voting against further recounts. Katherine Harris was appointed by then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush; the Bush campaign also had significant ties to Justices Thomas and Scalia’s relatives.
  • Post-election research into voting recounts showed that, if a different method of counting were applied, Gore would have won the popular vote
  • Prior to the election, Secretary Harris ordered more than 50 000 voters to be purged from voter rolls on the basis of a felon list known to contain false positives. Most of the disenfranchised were black, and as many as 8 000 non-felons were on the list. Black voters voted overwhelmingly for Gore.
  • Focusing on the 95 000 Nader votes of discounts the 308,000 of the registered democrats who voted for Bush. If a “spoiler” example is to be made, it is to be made of the weak Gore campaign being unable to call on his own party to vote for him. In comparison, only 20K registered democrats voted for Nader.
  • The Lewinsky affair-infused aftertaste of the Clinton presidency had an impact on the election: in particular, Gore did not ask Clinton to campaign for him in Bill’s home state of Arkansas, which Gore then proceeded to narrowly lose (winning Arkansas would have delivered Gore the presidency regardless of the Florida result). The choice of a hawkish conservative Democrat Lieberman as VP was also in part influenced by the former’s criticism of Clinton.

The (very close) election was lost due to the undemocratic design of the American electoral college, rampant racially motivated disenfranchisement, a decision made by a corrupt judiciary system, and, ultimately, the weakness of the Gore campaign, which was unable to capitalize on the popular Clinton presidency and the growing Democrat demographic advantage. Instead of scapegoating Nader, who even by third party standards was an unpopular candidate, a Democratic Party voter would do well to look at the deep issues in the electoral system and in their own party. To prevent disasters like the 2000 election in the future, Democrats must advocate for a transparent electoral college, an overhaul of the obsolete Supreme Court system, and for strong, progressive Democrat candidates who are able to rally their base and energize the next generation of voters.