Chris Savage had had enough of Bill Clinton and his shenanigans by the time the 2000 election rolled around, and he wasn’t thrilled about putting his vice president, Al Gore, back in the White House for another four years. But as a Democrat, there was no way the 36-year-old Michigan resident was going to vote for George W. Bush either.
Then, he found Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
“He was pretty convincing in terms of the things he was advocating for. And he did have some very progressive positions and ideas, so those appealed to me,” Savage recounted.
He soon put a Nader sign in his yard, became politically active and was all in to send a message to the establishment.
But this cycle, Savage isn’t even considering voting third party. He’s now an outspoken Hillary Clinton supporter and literally works for the establishment as Democratic Party chair of Washtenaw County in Michigan.
And he wants to make sure that disaffected voters know exactly what they’re doing in this election before they go pull the lever for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein of the Green Party or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.
“I was somewhat uninformed and felt like there wasn’t that big a difference between Gore and Bush, believe it or not,” he said. “Obviously, in retrospect, it was a moronic way to look at things.”
The Huffington Post spoke with Nader voters who have since figured out that the best way to fix the two-party system is to join it. They’ve worked in Democratic politics for years ― some as penance for what they did in 2000 ― and they worry that Stein voters are going to be making the same mistake they did with Nader.
“If you think there’s no difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then you’re not paying attention,” said Joe Rospars, who was the chief digital strategist for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and voted for Nader in Virginia when he was 19. “I don’t think that I’m just an old person now saying what an old person would have said to me 16 years ago. ... Voting for Jill Stein in a battleground state or Gary Johnson for any reason is just not a useful way to operate the electoral system.”
Nader took 2.7 percent of the vote in 2000, and there’s been a national argument ever since over whether he cost Gore the election. He received nearly 100,000 votes in Florida, a state in which Bush beat Gore by only 537 votes.
People who went for Nader in 2000 have done their own soul-searching over the years, with plenty of accusations from friends that they led to things like the Iraq War.
“Those of us who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, most of us, if we had to do it over again, would not do it,” said Kurt Ehrenberg, 58, who served as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) New Hampshire political director but now solidly backs Clinton. “You feel, in some small way, responsible for all this stuff that George W. Bush was able to do because he was elected president ― even though it was the closest race in my lifetime and there’s still some question as to whether, if all the votes had been counted, Bush would’ve won.”
“I was somewhat uninformed and felt like there wasn’t that big a difference between Gore and Bush, believe it or not. Obviously, in retrospect, it was a moronic way to look at things.”
Jesse Berney was 25 when he voted for Nader and has since worked at the Democratic National Committee and for Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
When asked if he regretted his vote, he replied, “Of course! John Roberts and Samuel Alito, the Iraq war, the huge irresponsible tax breaks, the pushing of abstinence-only education. The list goes on and on.”
Berney eventually ended up creating a list that he called Bush’s “Scorecard of Evil,” summing up all the president’s objectionable actions.
Many of Stein’s supporters were one-time Sanders supporters. But even though the senator himself is now out there campaigning for Clinton, not all of them are on board. Sanders’ supporters booed the senator himself at the Democratic National Convention in July when he said it was time to vote for Clinton.
“It’s frustrating,” Ehrenberg said. “I try to talk to these folks about my vote for Ralph Nader and how much I regret that.”
Ehrenberg and others worry that many of the younger Stein supporters have never really known a president besides Obama ― and they don’t realize how much worse it could be under a Republican president.
“Part of what is going on with these voters is they’re mostly younger people who had very little experience with electoral politics before the Bernie campaign,” he said. “And their main opponent all through the primaries is Hillary Clinton. So they really continue to view Hillary Clinton as sort of the enemy when clearly, to me, and clearly if you listen to Bernie Sanders, she’s not the enemy.”
“A lot of them have the luxury of having Obama for eight years,” added Irene Lin, who was 24 and living in California when she voted for Nader and has since worked on Democratic campaigns. “I think they take for granted how bad it was before. Especially when I worked on the Hill in 2005, and it was Bush and then Republicans had control of the Senate and the House and it was just miserable.”
Some of these Nader-voters-turned-Democratic-operatives also said they underestimated just how bad Bush would be. They were, after all, primarily focused on the Clinton administration and devoting energy to criticizing the Democratic Party.
“I think at the time, a lot of people were under the illusion he wasn’t as bad as he turned out to be,” Rospars said. “Not that I would have ever voted for him, but ...you wouldn’t have imagined that even from just a policy perspective, that it was as bad as it wound up being based on the campaign and the broader media environment during the election.”
“But also as a kid, I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he added.
Some Nader supporters have officially joined the Democratic Party as elected leaders. Kyrsten Sinema, for example, worked on Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000 and is now a Democratic member of the House from Arizona.
James Wolf was in college at the University of Cincinnati when he backed Nader, unhappy with NAFTA and some of Clinton’s welfare-to-work policies.
“Nader really spoke to me at the time,” he said.
Since his college days, he’s joined the city council in Mount Healthy, Ohio, and now serves as the Democratic mayor there. He still considers himself more liberal than both Clinton and Obama, but he said his experience has helped him better understand why it’s useful to support the top of the ticket even if the candidate isn’t perfect.
“The work that [major party presidential candidates] do when they run for office helps build the voter file and helps build the party so that when I run for election, it helps people like me get elected,” he said. “And when people like me get elected at the lower level, we help grow the party from the grassroots and push it into the direction I would like to see. ... So now I really believe in changing things through the party.”
“To be honest, these third-party candidates are kind of selfish,” Wolf added in a statement that probably would have shocked his college self. “Their campaigns are selfish. Because when you support Jill Stein, the money goes toward Jill Stein, and there’s no Green Party candidate in Mount Healthy, for example. ... So you’re not building any long-term momentum or movement. You’re just helping one person.”
Right now, many of these Nader voters say they’re not too worried about disaffected Democrats going third party and tipping the election to Trump. But then again, most of them thought that Gore would easily win in 2000 as well. And there are indications that third-party votes will hurt Clinton more than Trump. That’s why they’re still a bit concerned.
“If there are progressive or otherwise just public service-oriented people who are somehow figuring out a way to rationalize voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson,” Rospars said, “they should seek out me and the other people who you’re talking to for this piece for a conversation because I really can’t imagine how one could come to that conclusion.”