Looking for a Spoiler: The Swing State Strategy

“I voted Nader in Ohio and you’ll never catch me!”

— Graffiti on a bathroom wall, Belgium Beer Bar, New York City

A friend of mine, who happens to be a founding member of the Green Party, recently told me he believes that next year will be a great one for independent politics in the United States. He even predicts that a third-party antiwar bid for president could garner more support than Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000.

“Sheehan’s resignation from the Dems is symptomatic of a lot of grassroots sentiment,” he explained. “If we get Nader or [Cynthia] McKinney to run, it could be bigger than 2000. I detect no lesser-evil sentiment in the Greens this cycle.”

I sure hope he’s right, but I just don’t think he is. While the majority of the country opposes the Iraq war, there is still no viable antiwar movement pounding the pavement, day-in and day-out, demanding that the occupation end at once. It’s almost like dissent by proxy: let others do the dirty work while we wait for shit to change.

In 2000 the story was different. Nader’s campaign was kick-started by the anti-globalization protests against the World Trade Organization. The huge, diverse outpouring on the streets of Seattle eventually led to packed theatres and arenas across the country as Nader voiced our concerns about the destructive global economy.

People wanted change.

In many ways it was a spontaneous development. Nobody could have predicted one-year prior that Nader supporters would fill Madison Square Garden to the rafters. Nor could anyone have known the extent to which Nader would eventually be blamed, right or wrong, for the fallout of Al Gore’s embarrassing demise, and the horrific events that were to follow under the reign of George W. Bush.

The 2008 presidential election already seems to be moving at full-speed. The Democrats argue over petty details of each other’s platforms. The Republicans, for the most part, do the same, although they have the larger challenge of attempting to distance themselves from the failed Bush doctrine. But aside from a few lonely voices within the race on both sides, mainly Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich for the Democrats, and Ron Paul for the Republicans — there is no real fervor. There is no real debate about the issues that matter most. Corporate interests and dutiful allegiance to the American Empire, as Nader explained so well in 2000, dominate the heart and soul of both parties.

We all know why the Bush administration ought to be hauled off in handcuffs like Scooter was last week, yet there is little discussion about the culpability of the Democrats in all that has transpired since Bush came to power. And the list is long: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, No Child Left Behind, the PATRIOT Act, CAFTA, The Healthy Forest Initiative, the abuses at Gitmo, the Supreme Court Appointments, the bankruptcy bill, threat inflation toward Iran, and so much more.

There are going to be plenty of readers who still believe the Democrats offer at least a semblance of sanity. But rhetoric is cheap. The Democrats’ rap sheet over the past seven years would make Stalin blush.

Both parties in 2008, as my Green Party pal pointed out, must be challenged. And I don’t think an all-out fifty state campaign is the best approach to holding them accountable. As a minority, we may not be able to beat the Republicans, but we sure as hell have the ability to put tangible pressure of the Democrats. And that’s why we ought to focus our efforts on two states only: Ohio and Florida.

Third-party campaigns are up against many barriers. Ballot access restrictions, fundraising, media attention, and the inability to crack in to the corporate sponsored debates. Attempting to get on the ballot in all fifty states is laborious, not to mention expensive and time consuming. The Democrats, as they did to Nader in 2004, will even go the legal route in hopes of kicking us off the ballot. So why not instead focus our finite resources and energy on the states that matter most to them in our winner-take-all system — the two swing states with the most Electoral College votes.

Screw party building. It’s about movement building, and we have a war to end. Imagine if all those buses to Ohio weren’t meant to elect a Democrat, but were intended to end the occupation. We don’t actually live in a representative democracy, so we may as well exploit the system in order to make an impact. If the Democrats don’t address our issues they will risk losing valuable electoral points, and in turn, their presidential aspirant will lose the election. We may be a minority, but we could be a powerful one.

They’d be forced to listen.

This may all seem like a ridiculous proposition. But as it seems now, it is even more outrageous to assume that a fifty state campaign is feasible, given the overwhelming dislike for the Republican Party, and the lack of a politically minded antiwar movement.

The 2008 election is for the Democrats to lose. Let’s spoil it.

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in June 2008. Check out the Red State Rebels site. Read other articles by Joshua.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on June 8th, 2007 at 1:11pm #

    I have been voting for Nader for over 20 years. The only way I will stop voting for him is if Ward Churchill or Angela Davis are candidates.

  2. Bill O'Connor said on June 8th, 2007 at 8:20pm #

    Swing State Strategy, brilliant! Slight typo above, “ought to hauled off” should be “ought to *be* hauled off”. I think. 🙂

    It’s an excellent strategy, just those two states. It would go down in the annals of history. I don’t personally think anybody will be around to actually *read* the history, but I will support this effort 100%.

  3. Max Shields said on June 8th, 2007 at 8:50pm #

    It seems as if you want to pull your punches with regard to a third party candidate. I’ll grant you the historical obsticles, but events have a way of creating opportunities and there is a massive lack of vision for which there is a great hunger.

    Neither party, as you correctly assess, is providing that vision. Kucinich does . I don’t think Paul or Gravel do (though they’re completely right on Iraq and our dispicable foreign policy). This doesn’t mean that Kucinich can break the barrier. I do agree it is about movement – but I disagree it’s about ending a war. Wars end with or without a movement. It’s more fundamental, it’s transformative in nature and it includes: Polity, Culture and Economics. All three must be tackled if real fundamental, transformative change is to happen.

    Kucinich understands this, has articulated it time and again. But my only beef with Kucinich is that he cannot think outside of the Democratic party – he seems to think that that is where he can influence the most. He’s mistaken. But while he’s the guy with the right message, he’s the wrong messenger.

    We need a movement that transforms the culture, the body politics (3rd party) and the predatory capitalistic economic system that’s eating up the earth and all of its inhabitants. A fresh Nader could accomplish some of this. But its more than one candidate, it’s a whole slate at every level. The system will not change to allow 3rd party candidates to “overcome” the obsticles you mentioned. The obsticles must be ignored. If the time is right (and I think it is) we could begin the long transformation process. It will take decades before it is complete, but it can (and should) begin now with fortitude and passion.

  4. Hue Longer said on June 9th, 2007 at 8:47am #

    Interesting proposition Joshua. I think however that Dems don’t mind losing presidential elections (to Repubs anyways). I am all for making sure Dems don’t get in though, for this world won’t survive the real things happening to it being ignored while one half of the US voter base of appeased dupes defends their Democrat from ignorant attacks from the Republican other.

  5. Paul said on June 10th, 2007 at 1:35pm #

    I don’t live in the US, but I think something like this is about the only way. Before each elections (at least recently) there are talks about third option and so on. Yet this doesn’t happen and, I’m afraid, never will if things go the same way. To boot up a 3rd option you need some critical mass, so that the two parties at least start really caring — doesn’t really matter in which way. And attaining this critical mass by steep increase in voter percentage doesn’t seem possible, because percentage doesn’t mean shit in US voting system and just by looking at the latest elections results. So, suddenly taking a large chunk of votes in states that _do_ matter is probably the only way to gain that critical mass and make people start thinking and considering progressives as a force that can really change something.

  6. Myles Hoenig said on June 10th, 2007 at 2:04pm #

    I’m all for spoiling the Democratic Party and being proud to do so, rather than Greens in the past who spent more time on the defensive rather than offensive. For 2000 when we still hear how Nader spoiled it for Gore, the response should be to thank them for their flattery and confidence but that the GP just wasn’t strong enough to do that. Perhaps with their encouragement we can be a real electoral force in 2008.

    I would hope though that it isn’t just Greens who spoil the Democrats but even Libertarians or Bloomburg spoiling it for the Republicans. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful event if it were a 4 way race that really mattered; where the outcome is in doubt (except for the expected theft by the Republicans)? It’s still likely that either the D or R will win (no difference) but if alternative parties can show real muscle than perhaps the other 2 parties would then be on equal footing for the electorate to make real choices.
    I would still like to see the Democrats formally join the Republican party just to make it easier for us, as they are the ‘liberal’ wing of the GOP.

    As to a GP strategy, I think concentrating on swing states is an excellent idea. But, if there is a state organization with some discipline and numbers, then go after both parties there. NY, CA, even MD, although the Greens are very weak there organizationally, in spite of them running a gubernatorial candidate. But let the Democrats sweat even the states like MD or other ‘safe’ states and make ’em work for it. If the Greens are responsible for a loss in a safe state? then Hurrah for the Greens. Show some real musle there!

    I would also argue for going into states like Utah and others that are solidly Republican. Give the electorate a real alternative, as the DP is no alternative anywhere at all.

    Myles Hoenig

  7. bill rowe said on June 11th, 2007 at 7:21pm #

    Anything but Dems or Republicans to sow seeds of long term change …

  8. Hillary Aisenstein said on June 13th, 2007 at 7:11pm #

    I’m glad to see the support for this strategy from commenters above. However, in my experience, we Greens have the stomach for another round of spoiling – it’s our colleagues in the peace movement and the broader left that don’t. I would loved to be convinced otherwise.

    Green Party of PA

  9. Joseph Autumn said on June 24th, 2007 at 5:47am #

    Running to spoil as a show of “strength” is just another form of pleading and begging the Democratic Party to reform. The problem with that is not so much the pleading and begging – it’s the very notion that the Dem Party can reform.

    As a previous poster stated, the Dems don’t care if they lose. Gore and Kerry both threw their elections. They campaigned to lose, then refused to carry a challenge in court to the bitter end when it was clear that they might have actually won despite themselves, or would have if African-Americans had not been stripped illegally of the right to vote in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.

    Those who dominate the Dem Party are the same folks who dominate the Repub Party, and they don’t care whether the puppet in their left hand or the puppet in their right hand wins.

    I’m also absolutely certain that we’d lose 90% of our active volunteer base by telling them they all have to go to Ohio or Florida to participate. We’d get about 10% maybe 20% of the students, and about 1% of everyone else who isn’t within a three-hour drive of the Ohio or Florida borders.

    In other words, this sounds like a Kucinich strategy – rally the troops and lead them absolutely nowhere. To make a point, yes, and then rub out the point and leave a smudge and a stub.

    Furthermore, no candidate will get any press at all, I mean at all, if they don’t even make an attempt to get on enough ballots to win in the electoral college. As horrid as the press coverage given to the Nader 2000 and 2004 campaigns was, it would have been astronomically worse if the campaign didn’t even try to get in a position where it was mathematically possible to win. That, after all, is what the Nader ’96 campaign did, and nobody blames Nader for spoiling anything in ’96, not even a school board seat somewhere. He wasn’t serious in ’96 and he had no impact at all. That’s why he must have realized he had to run for real to have any influence on the electorate. You have to pay us at least that much respect before we maybe voters will even listen to you.

    Let me drive this point home further. If you’re mathematically out, and intentionally so, then you’ve removed yourself from the race. You’re not even really a candidate anymore, and no one’s going to bother voting for you because simply not voting at all accomplishes the same thing, and it’s easier.

    No point in anyone even dreaming you are President, or caring what you say about what you’d do as President, because what you’re saying is, “Work yourself to the bone campaigning for me, and everybody come out and vote for me for President, because I’ve made sure that even if 90% of the country’s citizens travel to Ohio and Florida to campaign for me, and 100% of Ohio and Florida voters vote for me, I absolutely won’t be President.”

    That’s just insulting.

    Joshua, I’ve enjoyed your articles over the years, but have you actually worked on a campaign before, I mean on the ground side by side with the true believers? Perhaps even as one of them?

    Cynicism alone is enough to kill democracy, whether it’s cloaked in a patina of trashy ignorance or of intellectual engagement. The only thing that gets anything done on a campaign is the hope, vision and possibility of winning, period. Without that, there is no will, there is no action, there is no genuine drive to participate in power, hence no conduct or movement towards democracy.

    Anyone who runs better run like mad in 50 states, Puerto Rico and every territory Bush plans to annex before election day. If they don’t, they might as well be what’s-his-name who ran so as not to offend Kerry on behalf of 10% of the Green Party in 2004.

  10. Babette Hogan said on June 29th, 2007 at 11:06pm #

    Great essay on the differences between Libertarians and Liberals. I have also appreciated many of the thoughtful comments.

    A couple of California Congressional seats are opening up and libertarians and greens are already playing a role in the upcoming elections. Here’s an article on third parties in an upcoming election:

    They’re are several more articles which appeared in DIGG a couple of days ago regarding other races in the nation that were seeing a rising interest in the third parties – whether Libertarian or Green.

    BTW – Here’s a site where election news is routinely updated:
    http://www.ballot-access.org/. It’s editor: Libertarian Richard Winger regularly work with Green politicians to improve ballot access.

  11. Joshua Frank said on July 10th, 2007 at 5:15pm #

    Hey Joseph, the answer is yes, I have worked on several third party campaigns over the years. I have to disagree, however, that the Democrats are in the business of losing on purpose. That’s utter bullshit. They are tied to the same corporate interests as the Republicans, as we all know, and they can’t bank their cash and keep their dumb jobs unless they remain in power. I live in Albany, New York, and this reality is pretty stark. Spitzer’s victory has changed this town almost over night. Instead of drunk Republicans stumbling around, we’ve got drunk Democrats parading with gin and tonic in hand. I assume DC is the same given the current takeover of Congress by the Dems. Winning means jobs. Not change. They are in the business of suckling on the corporate tit. And they can’t really suck if they don’t win.

    Of course, this strategy of their’s is awful. They’ve got it all wrong. The purposed swing state approach is NOT about reforming the Democrats. It’s about defeating them by calling them out on THEIR awful policies. Throwing the war in their face. Fuck reforming, that’s what the Green Party is for. Or at least that was what they sought to do in 2004. We’ll see if they can seize the moment in 2008. The time is ripe.

    Go Sheehan!

  12. Random said on August 25th, 2007 at 7:04pm #

    One thing that I continually hope for as a Green is that we as a party make it a priority to nurture our activists and grow our candidates from within our ranks. As a party of very unique and distinct values, I find it offensive that we constantly look outside our ranks for candidates and fall into the pig trough of the cult of personality. That was my objection to the idea of “endorsing” Nader in 2004 and the reason I threw my delegate support to “what’s his name,” not any complicity to the Democrats. I believe Cobb did alot with the little he was offered, to grow the party and represent us on the ticket when it became clear that the words “Green” would not otherwise appear there.

    Now we are at it again with this flirtacious lap dance by McKinney and guessing game with Sheehan. Are they Democrats, are they Greens, are they independents? McKinney can’t seem to cut the cord, Sheehan knows she needs the support of anti-war Dems who are still operating under delusions about Ralph spoiling the election twice. Are we going to settle for being listed somewhere down the list as endorsers when she decides to rejoin the Democratic party? Meanwhile, are we going to continue to sell out our good name, not to mention our resources, to people for whom the Ten Key Values are a quaint notion if even ever read by them at all?

    I’ve been a registered Green for a constant 6 years, not feeling a need to hop in and out of bed every time a Dem primary comes along like far too many.
    Is it too much for us to ask that our Green candidates BE Green, NOT borrowed, NOT blue?