In Defense of a "Safe States" Strategy
by Gabe Ignetti
August 2, 2003
I have been following the dialogues concerning Ted Glick's proposal for a Green "Safe States" Strategy with great interest. Given the technological advances in this day and age which enable anybody to campaign for any candidate anywhere via free long distance and cyberspace I must say that I find this approach to be most compatible with a 21st Century approach to building a grassroots political campaign. If presidential campaign is carried out under the rubric of the "safe states strategy" this effort could prove to be an altogether good thing for the immediate AND long-term future of the progressive cause in this country.
We Greens are working within a political context under which our superior political platform and overall approach, which were brought to national attention by the Nader Presidential campaigns of 1996 and 2000, have led to the exponential growth of our party on local levels throughout the nation. Our success has largely masked what may ultimately become our Achilles heel: a failure to think tactically. To the extent that a National Presidential effort is, by and large, a nation referendum on the Green Party we risk the chance of losing much of the support and momentum that we have built thus far by making bad choices.
Planning political campaigns are the closest thing to planning a military campaign that there is without firing a shot. The foundation of all military strategy is to attack the enemy where he is WEAKEST and picking your fights on the most favorable terrain. This, in fact is the central tactical advantage of the "safe states" approach. When running a Green Presidential campaign in a "safe state" campaign our job is to basically convince the electorate that our candidate and party are best suited to govern because the wasted vote argument runs in OUR favor. Our campaign, in itself, becomes a selling point because it visibly demonstrates a new found political savvy. On the other hand, running a Green Presidential Campaign in swing states is the political equivalent of fighting in quick sand.
In this terrain you must start by convincing voters that your political party is more worthy on its own merits.
THEN you must convince them that there is little difference between the two major parties.
THEN you must convince them that little difference equals no difference!?!
THEN you must explain why Greens aren't simply a Trojan horse for the Republican Party.
THEN you must the overcome the perception that the Green party is nothing a small bunch of self-absorbed, unrealistic purists.
THEN you must ALSO explain why going out on a limb and voting Green is worth it since the Greens don't have a snowball's of winning the election.
All of this convincing must be done on a shoe-string budget!
Given all these obstacles there is little doubt that had Nader ran with a "safe states" strategy in 2000 rather then campaigning in all 50 states the Green Party would have had a FAR better chance of getting the 5+% nationally that was needed to receive millions of dollars in matching funds because the only "wasted" vote for the progressive and populist voter in "safe states" would have been for Gore. Furthermore, it is very likely that the Democrats would have gotten the 0.95% of Green Florida votes that they needed to take the White House. As a result there would have either been no war in Iraq OR the battle cry among progressives in 2004 would have been to DUMP GORE!
We must never forget that the actions of the Democrats, when they are in power, that are the best selling point that we have for building independent politics to begin with! On the other hand our role of playing the spoiler indiscriminately could well lead to our marginalization.
The last thing that we should want is for our presidential campaign to enter 2004 on the defensive concerning our role in the 2000 elections. While we need not take any blame for our actions in the moral sense it should be all to clear that the pivotal role of Nader and the Greens in the 2000 elections in determining the (s)election of George Bush has clearly demonstrated that the Greens have CLOUT! Given the propensity of Democratic politicians to take the party base for granted while pandering to the center and right this is not something that should be given up for nothing. It would be whistling in the dark to expect Greens in swing states to make sacrifices such as the loss of their ballot status in the absence of sensible quid pro quos.
Pursuing a "safe states" strategy would, in essence, enable Greens to both hold out an olive branch to such political rivals and opponents as the Democrats and the AFL-CIO thus paving the way for a united front. One such example of a "sensible quid pro quo" might be a proposal for organized labor's strong backing, financially and otherwise, for IRV initiatives throughout the United States. In return for organized labors support for IRV Greens in swing states would keep our presidential candidate off the ballot entirely and confine their efforts to assisting the national Presidential campaign and local candidates. How a "safe state" would be ultimately defined and our degree of cooperation would be fully dependant on how far the other side was willing to go in supporting IRV and how "air tight" the agreement is.
We all know that IRV is the REAL solution to our conundrum. In the absence of the support of the heavy hitters it is an issue that is floating in limbo. In the long run getting IRV in place in even ONE state would be a far more meaningful political victory then anything else we might accomplish in the 2004 Presidential election. It would be a decisive step forward, not only for the Green movement but for ALL progressive and independent politics in general and would mark the first time that Green electoral efforts have produced significant results on a national level. This would bring a new respect for our party because concrete accomplishments are the ONLY yardstick by which most people measure the worth of a political organization.
If we succeed in cutting such a deal it would be like closing a window and opening a door! If the other side refuses our overtures then a more limited "safe states" presidential campaign could proceed from a stronger political position because WE took the higher ground! We would then be able to largely put the spoiler label behind us and directly appeal to progressive voters in "safe-states by convincing them to throw their support behind a Green Presidential candidate because it would substantially enhance that candidates ability to put forth the kind of politics that could move both the Democrat candidate and the American electorate to the left by bringing forth a fresh vision for the future. Furthermore, our standard bearer would pose a direct threat to the very legitimacy of George's candidacy asking the kind of questions that only a GREEN candidate could safely ask and which most ALL the Democrats have run from starting from the Coup of 2000 up to the present. Furthermore, it goes without saying that a strong Green President effort would have "coat-tails" that can only be a boon to all Democratic congressional candidates as well. Having effectively moved beyond the tactical arguments that divide us from other progressives our party and candidate would be in a better position to be judged directly on their merits.
In past Green presidential campaigns the fact that our numbers and finances were relatively small and thinly spread out has meant that our message was too often relegated to mere background noise. By far the greatest advantage of the "safe states" campaign would be our ability to utilize advanced communications to it's fullest to overcome these disadvantages. By focusing the entire national campaign on the "safe" states via online newsletters, block e-mail, and long distance telephone banks we, as a third party, would be capable of putting the entire weight of our national organization exactly where we have the best chances of success, thus raising the real possibility of quickly transforming ourselves from the margins into serious players in many parts of the country. Such major visibility for our party and platform would go a long way towards enhancing the power and organization of those Green parties. It would advance the recruitment of minorities while providing a clear and better alternative to the racism and reaction that is embraced by so many poor white people in some of the most conservative parts of the country.
The very existence of a successful Green cyber-campaign that is aimed at "safe states" in 2004 would prove to be a strong selling point, in itself, for our party by breaking the barriers of distance that have historically held back the advancement of third parties in America. It could greatly expand our activist base by allowing people to participate directly in support of our campaign who were formally put off by the fear of the lesser evil dilemma. Its success could be the model for future Green campaigns for either initiative reforms such as IRV or future Green congressional efforts. This success, in turn, should have a "snowballing" effect by overcoming the cynical rejection of the promise of independent grassroots politics that is embraced by so many non-voters.
The trick would be to begin our Presidential Campaign in the safest states and then move outward over time as we have a clearer picture of the political landscape. Two states come to mind as prime examples. If we put our focus on such states as Texas, which was the most polluted state in the nation and Mississippi, which is one of the poorest states with one of the highest percentage of Black people in the nation (40%), we should do FAR better because he would have been tilling the political soil on more fertile ground. Given this new approach there is no reason why we could not potentially win more votes in these two states alone than we received in the entire nation in 2000!
What Greens need most in these days and times is a political strategy that would resonate throughout the progressive community. What progressives need most is a way of uniting the Left to Dump Bush in '04. The "safe-states" strategy represents a real way out for both sides but it can only truly work to our mutual advantage if it is embraced, not just by Greens, but ALL progressives! If such tactics, that might emanate from the "safe-states" strategy, accomplished nothing else in 2004 they hold out the possibility of "shaking things up" enough to ultimately build a REAL progressive movement that has no permanent "friends" in ANY political party and the boldness to truly understand that power concedes nothing without a Demand.