Ralph Nader all over again
Dems worry third-party candidate will split vote
Florida Dems fear ex-Starbucks CEO could help Trump in 2020.
Democrats everywhere reacted to the idea of former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz running an independent campaign for president as if they’d gotten a sudden jolt of the coffee chain’s most bitter brew.
In Florida, the notion of a Schultz candidacy is especially distasteful to Democrats who have the 2000 presidential election seared in their minds.
If it weren’t for Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot that year as a Green Party candidate, Democrats are certain that Al Gore would have won Florida — and the presidency — instead of Republican George W. Bush.
“I totally blame Nader for that,” said Mitch Ceasar, who was chairman of the Broward Democratic Party at the time. “Al Gore lost for many reasons, but I consider Ralph Nader the No. 1 reason.”
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said, “Nader had almost 100,000 votes, and the margin of victory was less than 1,000. So clearly Nader’s candidacy made the difference.”
Schultz, who said last month he might run as an independent candidate in 2020, is a billionaire Democrat who espouses liberal social views. He also advocates conservative fiscal policies, including a willingness to consider cuts to Social Security and Medicare. And he doesn’t embrace policies such as universal health care and free college tuition that are popular with many progressives.
He has little in common with Nader, an anti-corporate warrior and consumer advocate for decades. But they’re linked in the minds of many Democrats because of the effect of Nader’s candidacy.
Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies who specializes in politics and voting at Nova Southeastern University, said a third-party or independent candidate normally “doesn’t mean much. But in (the 2000) election it was a big problem.”
The argument: Without Nader on the ballot, more of his votes would have gone to Gore than to Bush, and the outcome of the ultra-close contest would have been different. “It was enough to swing the election,” Zelden said.
By the time vote counting was
halted and the official results were declared, Bush had 2,912,790 votes — 537 more than Gore, giving the Republican the state’s electoral votes and the presidency. Nader, the liberal consumer advocate, won 97,488 votes running as the Green Party candidate.
Zelden said those numbers explain “why the Democrats are freaking out” at the prospect of a Schultz candidacy. “Especially for Democrats, 2000 is seared into their psyche.”
They imagine a Nader repeat, with Schultz siphoning votes away from the eventual Democratic nominee, easing President Donald Trump’s path to re-election.
“The fear that people have today is reminiscent of 2000,” Ceasar said. “It’s an example of history — possibly — repeating itself.”
It doesn’t take much to rev up people who were passionate about the BushGore election, Zelden said.
He wrote the book “Bush v. Gore: Exposing the Hidden Crisis in American Democracy,” which still sparks reactions. “I tell people I wrote a book about it and they start grinding their teeth and they start yelling. It doesn’t matter which side they were on.”
Ed Pozzuoli, who was chairman of the Broward Republican Party, doesn’t buy the Democrats’ version of analysis of the 2000 results.
Even though Nader was running to the left on the Green Party ticket, Pozzuoli doesn’t accept the premise that enough Nader votes would have gone to Gore, who was known as an environmentalist, to change the result. “I don’t think Nader was that impactual.”
If Nader hadn’t been on the ballot, Pozzuoli believes his supporters wouldn’t have voted.
Nader has consistently said he wasn’t responsible for Bush’s victory over Gore. He said he wasn’t a spoiler in the election. Rather, other candidates spoiled his chances, Nader has said.
But Mary McCarthy, who was chairwoman of Bush’s 2000 campaign in Palm Beach County and later county Republican chairwoman, said the presence of additional candidates in a close race can change the outcome.
“It obviously pulls votes from the major candidates,” McCarty said.
Nader wasn’t the only third-party candidate whose presence on the 2000 ballot made a difference. The so-called butterfly ballot design in Palm Beach County was confusing to many voters and led some people to mistakenly cast ballots for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan when they thought they were voting for Gore.
Buchanan, who said it looked like people there voted for him by mistake, got 3,411 votes in Palm Beach County — an improbable 20 percent of his statewide total.
Zelden said it’s unlikely a third-party candidate could attract enough votes in 2020 to influence the election. But, he added, Florida statewide contests are often decided by around 1 percent of the vote.
And, he added, “there’s no guarantee who he’s going to pull from.”
And Pozzuoli said it’s far too early to assess what kind of impact Schlutz would have if he ends up running in 2020. “We don’t know yet what kind of a candidate he’s going to be. Is he going to be a factor?”
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., on Feb. 7. Schultz said last month he might run as an independent candidate in 2020.