Yesterday, Ralph Nader called the New York Times and left an earnest voicemail expressing his displeasure at the use of the word “spoiler” in an article that appeared over the weekend in that paper. Mr. Nader refers to the word “spoiler” as “a politically bigoted word,” and goes on to say that using that term “degrades an attempt…to give the process a higher level of competition.” Mr. Nader, once an icon of the progressive left, is since 2000 more frequently seen as the spoiler who cost Al Gore that year’s election.
Putting aside for the moment that both Mr. Nader and voicemails seem kind of quaint in the year 2015, and that Mr. Nader’s message, at first blush, seem to be a petty concern over semantics, the issues he raises are nonetheless interesting. The real question he addresses is that if any candidate other than a Republican, Democrat or independent candidate who enjoys de facto support from one of the major parties, is referred to pejoratively as a spoiler, is our political system inherently too limited with barriers to access too high.
That is a subjective question, but regardless of the answer, it seems the primary process is very important because that is where a breadth of views can be represented through numerous diverse candidates fighting it out for the nomination. What then does this tell us about 2016 and American democracy?
As it stands now, the 2016 general election will be between the winner of a very competitive
Republican primary vs. Hillary Clinton. Although in every presidential election cycle there is talk of a third party candidate, and we will probably hear some of this talk over the next 18 months, serious third party candidates rarely emerge. No third party candidate has gotten more than 10 percent of the vote since 1992; and no third party candidate has gotten even a single electoral vote since 1968. The chances of there being a strong third party candidate in 2016, inevitable kibitzing by bored pundits notwithstanding, is extremely small.
In 2008, a heavily favored Hillary Clinton lost the nomination to a candidate who was a virtual unknown as late as 2004. In that campaign, Clinton’s vulnerabilities as a candidate as well as the absence of a convincing rationale for her potential presidency were exposed. Ms. Clinton, and the powerful political machine around her are not going to let that happen in 2016 for the simple reason that there will not be a real Democratic primary in 2016. From a strategic angle this makes a lot of sense, but it also does not reflect well on the state of American democracy.
Ms. Clinton will be a strong candidate in 2016 and might be an excellent president, but she will also be the beneficiary of the best funded political machine and most well-known political family in the country, not in helping her win the primary, but in making sure there isn’t one. A democracy can either have a multi-party system or it can have genuinely competitive primaries, but if it has neither, there is a problem. This is the way presidential politics, at least one side, are looking as we head towards 2016.
Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.