Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is for real in Iowa. He spent last Friday campaigning in the state and there is evidence he and his movement should be taken seriously.
It's not a wasted vote to vote for him.
Until now, the view here has been that Nader wouldn't do very well in Iowa where frugal people don't throw away their votes. It's time to rethink that. Nader's movement isn't like other third-party efforts.
We know Nader's message has traction because of the way Democrats have gone into overdrive trying to knock him down. Last week, Al Gore himself attacked Nader. Also last week, Nader's day in Iowa was shadowed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and comedian Al Franken, who were urging Democrats to hold ranks behind Gore. If Democrats weren't worried about Nader, they wouldn't be wasting time and Hollywood star power on him just a few days before the election.
They fear Nader will take enough votes away from Democrat Gore to give Iowa to Republican George W. Bush. This would be a repeat of something that happened in 1976 when Eugene McCarthy took enough votes away from Jimmy Carter to let Gerald Ford win the state's electoral votes by a plurality.
On Friday, Nader packed an estimated 2,000 people into the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa. Minor-league candidates can't do that. And there is evidence Nader is eating into the Democratic left. State Representative Ed Fallon, a quixotic Democratic lawmaker from Des Moines, said, "For this progressive Democrat, this campaign for president has been one slap in the face after another. To put it bluntly, I feel abandoned."
How many votes could Nader get? He could get around 5 percent, according to some poll estimates. He's getting 10 percent in Minnesota and 6 percent in Wisconsin, two states where much of the electorate is similar to Iowa's.
On top of that, there's been a wide streak of populism that's run through Iowa since the state was started. Nader taps into that better than Gore or Bush. This year, a lot of hard-pressed farm families feel abandoned by the Republican Congress that passed Freedom to Farm and a Democratic president who signed it. Workers feel shafted by big corporations.
There's also a group of peace and social-justice voters who aren't interested in spending more on the Pentagon as Bush or Gore would do. (Iowa has one of the lowest per capita levels of military spending of any state in the country, a fact that reduces the "hawk vote" in the state.)
There are several reasons for all of these folks to vote for Nader.
* A vote for Nader doesn't necessarily mean it's a vote lost to Gore. Some Nader voters wouldn't vote at all if he weren't on the ballot.
* A Bush presidency wouldn't be the end of the Earth. While some Democrats are trying to demonize Bush as a way to scare Nader voters into supporting Gore, that's off the mark. Bush didn't appoint right-wing kooks to jobs in Texas. He wouldn't do that as president. Even if he tried, a closely divided U.S. Senate wouldn't confirm anyone outside the American mainstream to top federal posts or the Supreme Court.
* A Gore defeat would force Democrats and those on the left to "walk in the wilderness" trying to figure out just what it is they believe. By contrast, a vote for Gore means the Democrats won't change. Gore and party poobahs will say the results of the election just affirm their centrist approach.
* A strong showing by Nader would also encourage other Green candidates to run for other offices in 2002. That, too, would help build their cause.
* A vote for Nader helps the causes the party espouses. If the Greens can make a difference in a presidential election, they will find both parties trying to find ways to attract their supporters. That will pull American politics to the left. Just as Ross Perot's movement forced change on the budget deficit, the Greens could force change on issues like the environment.
* A vote for Nader helps a new political party get started. If the Green Party candidate can get 5 percent of the vote, it will qualify for federal matching funds in the 2004 election. His supporters estimate the Green Party would get $7 million in matching funds if he gets 5 percent of the vote and another $1.4 million for each percentage point thereafter.
As Nader said during his Iowa visit, "Rome wasn't built in a day, and we're building a new progressive political movement over the long run." That's been tried before. Iowan Henry Wallace tried it in 1948 and wasn't even able to carry his own state. Yet that same Progressive Party eventually saw the Democratic Party adopt many of its issues in later campaigns.
In short, there are plenty of reasons for those on the left to vote for Ralph Nader. It sends a message. It helps build a new party and a new political movement.
Those are not wasteful or silly things to do.
Copyright © 2000, The Des Moines Register