By Niall Stanage
May 25, 2016
The Green Party suddenly has a chance to make an impact in the presidential election, with polls showing that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are set to be the most unpopular nominees in modern times.
The possibility of disaffected liberals going to a third-party candidate sends a shiver through Democrats — especially those with memories of the 2000 presidential election — even as it delights the Greens and their likely nominee, Jill Stein.
In 2000, votes cast for Green Party nominee Ralph Nader may have swung the outcome of the election to George W. Bush over Al Gore, the Democratic nominee.
Stein, who was the Green Party nominee in 2012 and is the near-certain standard-bearer this time as well, told The Hill that the likelihood of Trump and Clinton being the major-party nominees “creates a very propitious situation for the American people to actually have some choices.”
She insisted that the majority of people backing Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, are doing so in order to keep Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, out, rather than out of any real love for the former secretary of State and her policies.
“How about we allow the public to view the legitimate alternative to that?”
Stein, a Massachusetts-based doctor, won about 470,000 votes nationwide in 2012, giving her only about three-tenths of 1 percent of the total votes cast. Back in 2000, Nader received more than 2.8 million votes for a vote-share of about 2.7 percent.
Nader had assets Stein does not, including a higher level of name recognition among the progressive grassroots. But Stein also has advantages.
In particular, the scars left by the Democratic primary could play to her benefit given that many voters supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are resistant to backing Clinton in November.
Additionally, the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the nation, which has fueled Sanders’s rise on the left and Trump’s on the right, makes it plausible that many voters could rebel against the status quo by voting for a third-party candidate.
Stein is making a play for Sanders supporters. In an interview with The Hill, she praised him for “really putting forward great policies.”
She added that there is “an incredible love affair between our supporters and Bernie supporters. You can’t distinguish them; they are already comingled.”
Whether the Green Party can harvest those votes, however, remains an open question.
“The simple reality is that there is no proof that the Green Party can win a national election, especially one with the Electoral College as it is,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America (DFA).
“In order to make any sort of argument, you would have to explain how a vote for the Green Party isn’t just a way that Donald Trump wins the White House. Even more importantly, it would potentially throw away the power that has been built over the course of this campaign for progressives within the Democratic Party,” Sroka added.
The DFA endorsed Sanders but has always pledged to back the eventual Democratic nominee. Sanders himself has made the same promise.
Stein, on the other hand, said she would “feel horrible” if either Trump or Clinton were elected in November.
Her argument is not only that Clinton is “the lesser of two evils” — a phrase that Sanders has used. She also contends that Clinton is a proponent of the same kind of centrist economic policies put forth by her husband. The policies of former President Bill Clinton, Stein said, have led to the wage stagnation and economic malaise that she believes made Trump’s rise possible.
Asked what she would say to a voter who was sympathetic to Green Party policies but feared gifting the White House to Trump, Stein replied: “The first thing I would say is that Trump was created by the politics of the Clintons. Putting the Clintons in power will only fan the flames. Hillary is not a solution to Trump; the Clintons are the cause of Trump.”
She added, “The second thing I would say is, ‘Don’t be talked out of your own power.’… We need a policy of courage, not cowardice. We need to bring that courage into the voting booth. To adopt a position of cowardice in the voting booth is to surrender to a predatory political system on all fronts.”
But that is the kind of claim that brings a combination of bemusement and horror from Democrats who were on the front lines during the 2000 election.
“Is it theoretically a cause for concern? You bet,” said Michael Feldman, a Democratic strategist who was Gore’s traveling chief of staff during the 2000 campaign. But he added, “I think people learned the hard way in 2000 that a protest vote can swing things in ways that are damaging and dangerous.”
Chris Lehane, who was press secretary for Gore’s 2000 bid, said, “2000 made clear that a presidential vote is not an academic exercise, but the ultimate right every voter has to affirmatively shape the kind of country they desire. … The importance of using that vote responsibly is something that 2000 speaks to.”
Independent experts also suggest the mere presence of Trump on the ballot could prompt liberals to come out to back Clinton, even if they are unenthusiastic about her.
Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and an expert on third-party politics, recalled that during the 2000 campaign Bush presented himself as the smiling face of “compassionate conservatism.”
This year, Jacobs said, “the conditions are there” for a strong Green Party performance. “But by the time November rolls around, the Democratic Party campaign machine will have framed this election as an end-of-all-life choice between Trump and Clinton.”
Still, Stein is defiant.
“You have got to fix the rigged political system,” she said. “If you only have choices that are funded by the big banks, fossil fuels and the war profiteers, that’s what you’re going to get.”