The game of "What If?" history is almost always a useless, speculative exercise - and always definitive on the question of Ralph Nader in the presidential election of 2000, and the history of the world thereafter.
What if Nader hadn't gotten a passel of votes in Florida? Al Gore would have been elected President - there would have been no need for a Florida recount, among other things; and the world would have been a very different place than it is today.
Now, in 2008, Nader's presidential candidacy looms again as a potential--though unlikely-- threat to the election of a Democratic president if there is an unexpectedly close finish. (For the record: Repubican honchos with whom I have spoken in the last twenty-four hours see virtually no way that McCain will win; Karl Rove, who spoke with one of them, is reported to share this view privately.)
Perhaps, as conventional wisdom has it, Barack Obama will win comfortably; perhaps John McCain - in an increasingly longshot scenario - will claw his way to victory, and in such a way that Nader's candidacy will not figure.
But bring about a close election in a number of states - especially Ohio and Missouri, where polls show Nader winning about 2 and 4 per cent, respectively - and it is just possible to see how Nader, with his messianic vanity, and destructive urges that are best explained by God or psychiatry, can again determine the future of America.
From almost any non-Republican perspective - except nihilism - this is a travesty. In 2000, many of Nader's votes came indeed from young nihilists (and Old Leftists, who should have known better) who imbibed his bunkum that there was no difference between the two parties or their two candidates. And he has been preaching the same nonsense today, with particular fervor on college campuses.
It is even possible to foresee a way in which--if the national electoral result is unexpectedly tight on Tuesday-- the student population of Ohio State University (60,000) could, if Nader attracts enough support on campus and the final vote in Ohio is as close as Florida was in 2000, determine the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. (Memo to Ohio State students: share this message with your friends.)
In an Ohio News Organization poll in late September, among those making less than $20,000 a year, Nader was at 11 percent. Among independents, he was at 10%. And for those aged 18 to 29 in central Ohio, he was at 7 percent.
There are two other states, especially, where Nader could influence the election outcome if McCain were to surge towards the finish: Colorado and Missouri, more likely the latter. I was on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis ten days ago, and sentiment for Nader was hardly dormant. Nader sent out a mass mailing in the state last week, and according to the latest CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. poll, he is at 4 percent in Missouri, where McCain and Obama are seen to be running neck and neck: 48.3 to 47.7 per cent, in McCain's favor, according to the latest CNN average.
Sensible Democrats might expect by now that an influential group of former Nader disciples who have known the man for 35 or 40 years --dating to the days when he made a genuine contribution to the national weal as an advocate for consumers and political reform-- would have taken some kind of collective action to warn young people, particularly, that this hero of another age has become the dangerous (and disingenuous) cult of his own personality--unhinged politically, at the very least, and a threat to the very causes that put him in the map. (None of which is to say that there haven't been in the American past--and may be again--periods when third-party movements deserve to succeed and persevere. )
But meaningful preventative early-warning about Nader from those who know him best didn't happen in 2000 and--even more remarkably, given the lessons of 2000 and the choices of 2008--it hasn't happened in this election. Nader continued to wage an under-the-radar (i.e. national media) campaign with enough money and infrastructure, free local television and campus rallies to get his message across where it can do the most damage to the Democratic ticket - in those states where the voting may be extremely close between Obama and McCain: places where economic dislocation is most dire, and a mix of nostalgic seniors and disaffected young people could make a difference in the electoral count.
Nader's supporters, when questioned by pollsters, indicate he may be pulling almost equally from both McCain and Obama, though I'd bet otherwise. Some polls show Nader is at 3 percent nationally; the latest Real Clear Politics average gives him 2.3 per cent of the total vote, and Bob Barr the right-wing former Republican running on the Libertarian ticket, about 1 cent. Meanwhile, most of the polls show Nader taking two votes from Obama for every one that Barr might get from McCain. Almost all the math shows the net effect of Barr and Nader's candidacies hurting Obama disproportionately.
Ralph Nader's role in the political dynamic of real-existing America ceased long ago to be positive, as the values he once espoused became, apparently, overwhelmed or subverted by personal fantasies and resentments about which we can only speculate, but which seem to manifest themselves as a relentless urge for fame and ruinous chaos: See Florida, 2000, and his decision--after that horror--to attempt a repeat performance.
The media, which has endlessly discussed The Bradley Effect, ought to be taking note. For the Democratic Party, the motivation in confronting Nader in key states is obvious, even in the final hours of the campaign. For the press, it ought to be a story, no matter how unlikely the possibility of the Nader Effect becoming--again--historic.