No, Ralph Nader Did Not Hand the 2000 Presidential Election to George W. Bush
More than 12 times as many Florida Democrats rejected Al Gore in favor of Bush than they did for Nader.
You may have heard that you're either a "ridiculous" Bernie Bro or some other form of privileged white dude unless you accept the prevailing theory among Hillary Clinton supporters that a vote for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein is a vote for Donald Trump, just the way a vote for Ralph Nader was a vote for George W. Bush in 2000.
There's no shortage of lamentations to be found on the interwebs from once-idealistic young liberals who have never forgiven themselves for voting their consciences at the turn of the millennium, and who won't forgive you if you choose to make the same mistake. There are a number of problems with that line of thought (the most obvious being that it assumes the votes of left-leaning voters are owed to the Democratic Party because every presidential election is the most important ever), but more importantly, it's simply not based in fact.
It is true that approximately 95,000 Florida ballots were cast for Nader in 2000, and assuming every single one of those votes went instead to then-Vice President Al Gore (which is an incorrect assumption, but we'll get to that later), Gore would have been easily able to supplant the 537 vote differential in the Sunshine State that gave Bush the presidency.
What that oft-cited factoid leaves out are the inconvenient truths laid out by Jim Hightower in Salon way back when, including the fact that only about 24,000 registered Democrats voted for Nader in Florida, whereas about 308,000 Democrats voted for (wait for it…) Bush! Further, approximately 191,000 self-identified "liberals" voted for Bush, as opposed to the fewer than 34,000 who went with Nader.
The conventional thinking goes like this: Nader voters lean left and Gore is to the left of Bush, therefore votes for Nader would have gone to Gore. But leftist academic Tim Wise pushed back on this summation in 2000, writing that "Exit polls in Florida, conducted by MSNBC show that Nader drew almost equally between Gore, Bush, and 'None of the above,' meaning his presence there may have been a total wash."
In 2006, Michael C. Herron and Jeffrey B. Lewis authored a UCLA study on the effect of third party voting on the 2000 election. Among their findings:
Only approximately 60% of Nader voters would have supported Al Gore in a Nader-less election. This percentage is much closer to 50% than it is to 100%. One might have conjectured, that is, that Nader voters were solid Democrats who in 2000 supported a candidate politically left of the actual Democratic candidate. This conjecture, we have shown, is wrong: Nader voters, what participating in non-presidential contests that were part of the 2000 general election, often voted for Republican candidates. Correspondingly, [Reform Party candidate Pat] Buchanan voters voted for down-ballot Democratic candidates. Thus, the notion that a left-leaning (right-leaning) third party presidential candidate by necessity steals votes from Democratic (Republican) candidates does not hold.
So why hasn't there been 16 years of hand-wringing over the thirteen percent of voting Florida Democrats going turncoat for the Republican nominee? What about the traditionally Democratic-voting bases of white women and seniors who both went for Bush, or lower-income voters, who mostly tilted for Gore but nearly forty percent of whom voted for Bush?
Why is Ralph Nader the boogeyman of the left and not Al Gore himself who (despite being a VP in a popular administration which had the dumb-luck of presiding over a booming economy) was unable to win his home state of Tennessee, a state with enough electoral votes to send him to the White House even without Florida?
Simple. Nader must be vilified because of the popular notion that the two major parties are entitled to your votes, and if you have any agency at all it's to prevent the more terrible of the two from taking the reins of power. That's how Gore, despite running an uninspiring campaign where he benched uber-campaigner Bill Clinton and chose the hawkish and moralistic Joe Lieberman as his running mate (thus turning off a great many off the liberals whose votes many feel were Gore's birthright as the Democratic nominee), gets let off the hook, as do the hundreds of thousands of Republican-voting Democrats (in Florida alone), while "Ralph Nader" becomes shorthand for the folly of idealism.
If Hillary Clinton loses the 2016 election to the odious Donald Trump, you can bet the blame will not fall on Clinton for failing to win over a portion of the left repelled by her record of censorship, failed military interventionism, drug prohibition, and crony capitalism, but rather it will fall on what Salon's Amanda Marcotte is already describing as the "attention-seeking dead-enders" or "Bernouts" who will vote for Jill Stein.
There's nothing wrong with holding your nose and voting for the candidate you believe has the best chance to defeat another candidate who you consider an existential threat to the country. There's also nothing wrong with refusing to confer legitimacy on a major party candidate you don't feel deserves it, even if you begrudgingly could live with that candidate over his/her opponent.
But it's also perfectly fine to reject the binary system which produced the two most disliked and distrusted presidential candidates in history, in the hopes that next time (and yes, there will be a next time) the concerns of voters who want no part of the Democratic and Republican standard-bearers will have a greater voice. Remember, no party has a right to your vote.