Ralph Nader may not have billions of dollars to spend on television advertisements, big-moneyed corporate backers throwing their weight behind him or a political party significant enough to get him a spot in the presidential debates, but he's got one thing no other presidential candidate can boast: complete and total domination of every online mailing list I subscribe to.
My favorite San Francisco mailing list for Web developers and other dot-commies erupted a few days ago into a heated debate about whether or not the only thing a vote for Nader would achieve would be to prevent Al Gore from winning. It all started with a forwarded screed, penned by Nader advisor Steve Cobble, titled "Reasons to Vote for Ralph." (The crux of the argument: You can vote for Nader in states where Gore has a clear lead without changing the electoral vote.) Fifty posts later -- plus endless statistics, torrid flames, reminders about the makeup of the Supreme Court and laments about the ozone layer (not to mention one plaintive plea for Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne, and another for the Natural Law Party) -- it's still unclear whether or not voting for Nader will truly put Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the White House. But there's no doubting that Nader's liberal fans are legion online, and they're employing that useful tool called e-mail to make up for any lack of lawn signs.
Simultaneously, the mailbox for my other high-traffic mailing list -- Pho, a digital music discussion list populated by over 1,000 label types, programmers and MP3 enthusiasts -- was rapidly filling with an almost identical flame war. Michael Moore's plea to the nonvoters of the nation to vote Nader was passed around with impunity, as was Dan Savage's anti-Nader screed from the Onion. Political junkies raged through the same impassioned diatribes: Is a vote for Nader too risky? Are Naderites sacrificing the next four years to Republicans in order to gain a foothold in the 2004 elections? And does your vote really count, anyway? The similarities between the two debates were so uncanny, I often forgot which post was from which mailing list.
Yes, election time has become a dangerous time to be online. My in-box fills daily with notes from friends who want to make sure that I'm aware of the dangers of certain local San Francisco Bay Area propositions and forwarded political satire. (How many times this week have you seen that "Next Debate" e-mail parodying the televised presidential debates?") I even get spam from politicians in Midwestern states who seem to think that, even though I'm three states away, I might still want to vote for them for county supervisor.
And, of course, there's Nader, Nader, Nader -- he may have a mere 3 to 5 percent of the vote nationwide, but he seems to have supplanted the Libertarians as the alternative political online vote of choice. Only one mailing list I'm on has thus far been immune to the Nader debate; but I'm counting the minutes until it, too, explodes into a vituperative discussion of partisan politics. Personally, I won't be swayed: I decided who I was voting for months ago. But until Nov. 7 comes, it seems, my only political weapon is the delete key.