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Synthesis/Regeneration 32   (Fall 2003)

Party Building and the 2004 Elections

by Philip Webb,
Graduate Institute for the Liberal Arts, Emory University

The waning days of 2003 mark the opening of the sprint to next November’s presidential elections. Within the first few months of the new year, millions of dollars will be spent in Democratic primaries to narrow the candidate field to a surviving few by early spring. President Bush will continue to amass unprecedented levels of cash to run unchallenged primary campaigns to position him for the general election. The shell remnants of the Reform Party will rummage the political dregs to see whom they might put forward. The Green Party will face a dual decision—whether to run a presidential candidate, and if so, then whom should that person be.

Unequivocally, the party must put forth a candidate.

Leaving the second question for others, I will address the issue of to run or not to run. Unequivocally, the party must put forth a candidate. The Green Party won nearly 3% of the popular vote in the 2000 elections. Retreating from the national stage might falsely signal waning strength or a dearth of strong progressive candidates. Yet, merely making the decision to field someone for a presidential bid is not enough. Party strategy must clearly articulate what it seeks to accomplish through this candidacy. Being so grossly outspent by major parties and having no federal office holders to provide a legitimating platform, the Green Party candidate cannot expect to win the election. What then is the goal of running?

A vague sense of broadening the political discourse, while noble, does not build a political party. The election must be a party-building exercise. If neither winning nor developing the party, the Greens will waste money in campaign expenditures. When looking at the success of Green parties elsewhere, the German party stands out.

By joining a coalition government with the center left Social Democrats, the German Green Party obtained the leadership of the Foreign Ministry for the head of its party—Joschka Fischer. As Foreign Minister, Fischer has national and international stature. Additionally, as part of the ruling coalition, German Greens have held positions of Environment Minister and Minister for Consumer Protection. Having party leaders in national office, provides greater name recognition of both the party and its leaders, access to national media, a demonstration of the party’s ability to function at the highest levels. In short, it establishes a broader sense of legitimacy for the party.

A vague sense of broadening the political discourse, while noble, does not build a political party.

Alas, the absence of a parliamentary system in the United States makes the German example, at first, seem of little relevance. Yet informal coalition building can be a key to future Green Party USA success. The party does not run a candidate in a vacuum but takes account of its standing vis-à-vis the two major party candidates, as well as other third party entrants (none of whom fared as well as the Greens in 2000).

The Green Party must focus its campaign on those states where it has the greatest chance of foiling the Democratic candidate. The goal is to poll as a potential ‘spoiler’ in multiple states, making the Democrats take notice. But rather than merely encouraging a leftward move of the Democratic nominee, a strong ‘spoiler’ candidate from the Greens could make overtures to withdraw from the race with an endorsement of the Democrat, on condition of a guarantee of two or three cabinet positions for Green Party leaders. If the Democrat wins, the Green Party gains federal office for its leaders. Yet, even if the Democratic candidate loses, the fact that had to negotiate with the Greens still provides a legitimation to the Green Party as a political force on the national level.

When looking at the 2000 elections, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader’s 4% of the vote in New Hampshire and 2% of the vote in Florida exceeded the gap in votes between winner George Bush and loser Al Gore in both states. Under an endorsement scheme, these votes would presumably have gone to Al Gore, giving him the electoral votes of these two states, and thus transforming the election outcome. Moving of the Green votes to the Democrat would have taken 29 electoral votes from Bush and given them to Gore, providing him with 25 more than the requisite 270 needed to win the presidency.

The Green Party must focus its campaign on those states where it has the greatest chance of foiling the Democratic candidate.

Beyond the actual fulfillment of the ‘spoiler’ role in these two states, Nader’s presence in the race made a dozen other states quite close. Concentrating on these, or rather on those states in which current polling data show dead heats between the Democratic candidate and President Bush, can make races in other states even tighter.

A strong run in those states with a close race between Democrats and Republicans, offers the best chance for the Green Party to wield influence at the national level. Realistically, the party must acknowledge the possibility (or perhaps even the probability) that Democratic candidates might reject such overtures to a coalition. They may fear that they will appear weak or finding such an alliance counter to attempts to move to the center for general elections.

If so, continued focus on potential ‘spoiler’ states still serves the party’s long-term interests. The greater the number of states in which the Green Party appears to determine the election outcome, the greater the boost to the stature of the party. By playing a major role in two presidential elections in a row, the Greens thus create an increased likelihood of acceptance to future approaches and establish the continued importance of Green politics at the national level. Joining forces in a Democratic administration is the quickest way to consolidating a national political presence. The party must run a presidential candidate, but it, likewise, must have a clear vision of what it hopes to achieve through this candidacy. Party building must include great attempts to win local office, but the Green party cannot retreat from the national stage.

[6 sep 03]

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