I can't imagine that Pat Buchanan would have sought the Reform Party nomination if he thought he would end up with less than half a million votes - this after receiving three million in the GOP primaries four years before. It's actually possible that Pat got fewer votes than he had contributors, a sure sign that something remarkable happened.
I assumed, when joining the campaign in October 1999, that ten million votes were a strong possibility - enough to create a conservative third party powerful enough either to pull the GOP in a more sensible direction on immigration and foreign policy issues, or to bring about its demise. Lots of people believed 5-10 percent was reasonable - that was the estimate of John Judis, hardly a Buchananite, in the left-liberal American Prospect last fall http://www.prospect.org/archives/V11-1/judis-j.html
So what went wrong? What miscalculations were made? What things broke in an entirely different way than Pat and his campaign staff anticipated?
What follows is subjective, and will disappoint those who are eager to point to some specific error in the campaign's strategy or organization - i.e. "it's all Bay's fault;" or "choosing Ezola was a disaster;" or "opposition to the China trade deal/ globalization was mistaken." I believe none of those were important, though they could be reasonably second-guessed.
* First, and most importantly, 2000 turned out simply to be a bad year for third parties. Nader, whose campaign did catch on in the last month, and was rightly touted as creative and successful, got less than three percent of the vote, barely a third of Perot's 1996 total. (And Perot's second run, let's remember, was viewed at the time as a failure.)
Perhaps Senator McCain could have done better, garnering some sort of double-digit vote - provided he wasn't too hampered by sore loser laws, which inhibit a candidate from running for President after running in the primaries of another party. But I'm not sure.
The plain fact was that we heard, again and again, from conservatives of various stripes, "We love Pat, but we've got to defeat Gore." I think that, if defeating Gore was not seen as a realistic option - if Gore had been, in October, as far ahead of Bush as Clinton was ahead of Dole - many of those votes would have been available to us.
As it turned out, with polls showing Bush up by small or razor thin margins, even some of our strongest supporters didn't vote for us. For instance, Glenn Spencer, one of the leading California immigration activists, a great fan of Pat and many times generous with time and advice to the campaign, posted on election day on his wonderful American Patrol website http://www.americanpatrol.com/ that he was waiting to see if Bush needed his vote before deciding. If people like that weren't with us on November 7 - in a state that turned out, despite the Bush feint, not to be close at all - who would be?
But this was our mistake. The campaign underestimated the desire among conservative voters to defeat Gore ahead of any other issue or principle. Just because many paleoconservative intellectuals and activists (and myself) were bored by the whole Monica business, were more interested in "real issues" like immigration reform or the illegal bombing of Serbia, doesn't mean the country was. Throughout the campaign, I heard almost nothing but good things about Pat from right-of-center political intellectuals - excluding, of course, the neocons - the prominently-placed anti-Semite smears notwithstanding. But kind words from this or that editor or author don't translate into millions of votes. Especially when their publications or organizations were heavily committed to a Bush victory.
* Secondly, the very closeness of the Bush-Gore contest created its own dynamic. Even if the two candidates weren't particularly interesting, the competition between them became, to most Americans, compelling. And though Bush was a fairly liberal Republican, it was difficult to claim (as we did) that there was really not much difference between Republicans and Democrats. Thus we were mistaken in anticipating a desultory two-party election - and resultant interest in Pat's campaign - simply because the two major parties had put forth mediocre candidates.
* Thirdly, Perot. It now seems ever so long ago, but the fact is the Reform Party forces closest to Ross Perot invited Pat to join the Reform Party in the summer of 1999. They gave him the impression - how firmly I don't know - that they would work with him to secure the party's nomination. Pat Choate, Perot's running mate in 1996, became one of our campaign co-chairs. We knew that former Colorado governor Dick Lamm had been invited into the party in 1996 and then had the rug pulled from under him. But we took steps - pursuing delegates in the Party's caucuses - to ensure that wouldn't happen to us. (And it didn't! Unlike the governor, we won the Reform nomination.)
But the fact is that the campaign was unprepared for Perot's changing his mind, and for the tactics the Perotista Old Guard would use, first to try to deny Pat the nomination, and then to render it worthless.
(Why Perot did this is an interesting puzzle, the solution of which I hope will come out one day. I know of one serious published interpretation - Tom Pauken's http://www.dmagazine.com/november00/politics1100.shtml While it seems plausible, I don't enough about Perot to judge it. But I doubt Pat would have left the GOP and pursued the Reform Party nomination if had he known in advance that the very same people who invited him into the party would turn against him so viciously.
As it turned out, almost all the campaign's energies from April to mid-September were devoted to intra-party battles. The antics of the "wrecking crew" - as many Buchananites came to call the hostile Perotistas - succeeded in poisoning the party's nominating convention in Long Beach, denying Pat any sort of bounce going into the fall campaign. In the month that followed Long Beach (August 15 to mid September), instead of getting a national campaign off the ground, we were forced to engage in costly and nightmarish litigation in dozens of states, and work through the avalanche of paperwork required to convince various Secretaries of State that we were the legitimate Reform Party nominee. (Hagelin, used by the Reform Party Old Guard to thwart us, was filing comparable, if legally less compelling, papers at the same time.) Simultaneously, Pat was crippled by gall bladder problems and three hospitalizations, and couldn't campaign.
Had we the money in August, and been able to use ensuing weeks to plan and build a campaign, we would have done better. An August and September that were terrible from a national campaign standpoint - though inside the campaign they felt victorious, because we established legally and politically that we were the "real" Reform Party - might well have cost us a point or two, enough to make Pat equal to Nader.
But even this would not have been enough to make the campaign a success by the criteria of the previous fall.
* Finally, there simply proved to be more room for a third party on the Left than on the Right. This was clear from December's "Battle of Seattle" onward. Could an anti-globalist coalition of Left and Right could be created - one that would accept Buchanan as the one leader who was out there running for President? I discussed this with Pat in Seattle. He recalled that James Burnham had written that left-right coalitions were inherently unstable. There was worry on the left that any left-right anti-globalist coalition might come to be dominated by the Right - that, nationhood, the conservative reason for opposing globalism, was potentially far more attractive than environmentalism or other grounds, as legitimate as those grounds were. The conclusion most the Left drew was to maintain their distance from our campaign.
It was clear even in December that, if the Left put a viable candidate forward, much of the anti-globalist types who had gathered in Seattle would have somewhere else to go - to our detriment. But would such a candidate emerge? Ralph Nader was an admirable man, and (perhaps surprisingly) a friend of Pat's. But in the estimate of most of us, he did not much want to run for President. In 1996 the Green Party nominated him and he didn't even campaign!
I don't recall a single conversation about a Nader candidacy and how it would affect us until he actually announced. But when he did, the very first poll had PJB dropping from about 5 percent to 3, and Nader ahead of us.
Having been present at the "Battle of Seattle," and having talked to dozens of people in the streets, this was hardly a surprise. But it was a bitter disappointment none the less.
The closeness of the Bush-Gore race; Perot's unanticipated volte-face; Nader's entry and surprisingly successful campaign. Add to these some of the factors Pat himself has mentioned - his surgery, not being allowed into the debates - and you have a campaign that ends up with one half of one percent.
I'm sure the open-borders types are now gloating, as are those who want the U.S. armed forces at the ready to bomb Serbia, Iraq, Iran, or whomever the editors of The Weekly Standard and New Republic consider the threat of the day. Buchananism, they will claim, is dead as an ideological force. I very much doubt this, but I'll leave that argument to others.
I'm sorry we didn't do better. I feel, as I'm sure do others in the campaign staff that I let Pat down. He was a wonderful candidate - extremely hard-working, terrific in almost every public forum and, I believe, with a very compelling message. But that was, it is now plain, not enough to create a "successful" Third Party campaign.
To succeed at that, one needs some breaks on major matters that are beyond reasonable control. We didn't get them.
November 26, 2000