Nader: What Impact?

I waited one week to write about the Nader factor to see how national polls would be impacted by his decision to enter the 2004 presidential contest. The early results are now in and it appears that, at least at this point, Nader takes some support from the Democrat, Senator John Kerry. Without Nader in the race, most polls are showing Kerry leading over Republican incumbent President George W. Bush by one to four points. When Nader’s name is added, however, the polls show Bush beating Kerry by one or two points.

In many ways, this year’s contest may be a replay of 2000’s presidential match up. Gore, it will be recalled, won the overall vote in 2000 by a razor thin margin but lost the presidency after a controversial Supreme Court decision gave President Bush a 537 vote victory in Florida. This win gave Bush Florida’s 25 electoral votes and a 271 to 267 margin of victory in the overall electoral votes cast.

While Nader’s supporters continue to deny that he bears any responsibility for the Democrats defeat in 2000, Democrats maintain that had Nader not been in the race the bulk of the 97,000 votes Nader won in Florida, would most likely have gone to Al Gore. This, they argue, would have given Gore a clear victory in that state and in the overall election.

For the past several months, not only Democrats but many of Nader’s 2000 supporters had waged a campaign hoping to convince him not to run this year. Spokespeople for progressive organizations published "open letters" and leading liberal magazines editorialized against a Nader candidacy. There was even a website named "Ralph Don’t Run". Their common refrain focused on three points:

1. There is a difference between the two parties

While many liberals are displeased with the centrist course taken by many Democrats, the policies pursued by the Bush Administration during the last three years have made it clear that there is a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans.

2. Don’t blame us

Liberals concerned that Gore’s 2000 defeat not be repeated do not want to support any effort they feel that might cost Democrats a victory in 2004. They are concerned that a Nader candidacy could drain precious votes away from John Kerry in states where the election is expected to be close. They therefore want to dissociate themselves from any such effort.

3. Nader’s legacy

Many liberals and progressives believe that Ralph Nader has made such significant contributions to American life over the last 30 years that he should not now risk tarnishing this legacy. They fear that should he be blamed yet a second time for a Democratic loss that he will be remembered as a "spoiler" and not for the role he played in advancing consumer protection, product safety, environment and health care issues.

Nader has rejected all of these arguments and entreaties from friends and former allies. He maintains that he bears no blame for Gore’s 2000 defeat arguing that Gore cost himself the election by running an ineffective and lackluster campaign. Nader continues to insist that because Republicans and Democrats are both, in his words, "beholden to the same corporate interests" they are, therefore, more alike than they are different. In a recent interview, he even went so far as to argue that if Gore had been elected President Iraq still would have been invaded (though he adds, "Gore would have done it differently")-a charge that Gore vigorously denies. And finally, Nader insists that by being in the race he will force the candidates to discuss issues they might otherwise choose to ignore.

But now for a reality check: This year’s election will be like 2000’s race in only one way; it will be close. Voters are already showing signs of being evenly divided. What is different is the intensity of the division between those who support George W. Bush’s reelection and those who support John Kerry. It appears, even at this early point, that both Bush and Kerry are each guaranteed at least 45% of the vote leaving less than 10 percent still to be decided. While early polls show Nader picking up some of that undecided vote, I believe that as we get closer to the November election those voters will make a decision between Bush or Kerry, ultimately leaving Nader with less than one percent of the overall vote.

An additional fact that weighs heavy here is Nader’s decision to reject the Green Party nomination that he had won in 2000. Because the Green Party is a recognized party in about one-half of the states, Nader would have been guaranteed ballot access (having his name on the ballot) in those states. This year, by running as an independent, he has put himself in the difficult position of going through the rigorous process of adding his name to the ballot in all 50 states, several of which pose serious challenges. For example, to get on the ballot in Texas, Nader and his supporters must collect 64,000 signatures from registered Texas voters before the end of May this year. In North Carolina they must collect over 100,000 signatures by June. And these are only two of the many states that have such restrictions.

Despite initially turning them down, Nader may still receive the Green Party nomination at their summer 2004 convention. That would solve his ballot access problem. But it will not help overcome the simmering frustration and resentment that still too many Democrats and liberals have for him. While Republicans are quietly celebrating a Nader candidacy, Democrats are deeply troubled by his decision to run.

The bottom line: this election will be close. The Nader factor will almost certainly not be as great as it now appears to be, or as significant as it was in 2004. Democrats and liberals will make every effort to avoid losing any votes that could cost them victory in November. This determination will cost Ralph Nader dearly in the support he would otherwise receive from those who have been his admirers and the beneficiaries of his work over the last several decades.