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The Nader Effect

Nader breathing down Kerry's neck.
May, 24, 2004

The Nader Effect

How worried should the Democrats be that the 2000 spoiler won't quit?


When you are prospecting for hundreds of thousands of signatures, you can't afford to miss any opportunity. So Ralph Nader had a few tips for the small group of volunteers who were brainstorming last Wednesday night at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., a state where an independent presidential candidate needs 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot. "It's a very good time to be doing it right now, at graduations," Nader ventured, "and sporting events and churches." Someone else proposed canvassing obvious lefty hangouts like vegan restaurants and bookstore cafes. The volunteers briefly debated waylaying people on bike paths, and then decided doing so would probably annoy them. But Nader's Virginia campaign coordinator, Jim Polk, knew where to find a mother lode of registered voters willing to put their names on a Nader petition. "Truck pulls," Polk said, patting his well-traveled clipboard as he suggested a quintessential red-state event. "People think they're doing George Bush a favor if they sign these. I've had some of my best luck at truck pulls."

NASCAR for Nader, perhaps? Once again, Ralph Nader is making Democrats very, very nervous. Polls show him running in the single digits both nationally and in battleground states, but that could conceivably be enough to swing a state or two in what insiders expect to be another close election. As the news from Iraq gets even worse, Nader who supports a total withdrawal of U.S. forces in six months could become the candidate of choice for the most hard-core antiwar voters, who may see little difference between John Kerry's stay-the-course approach and Bush's. "Unlike 2000, Nader now has a single issue that can fuel him," says a worried Democratic official. Party strategists also say they are seeing signs that Nader is drawing some support from the kind of anti-Washington voters who flocked to Ross Perot in 1992.

Although Nader rejects the idea that he cost Al Gore the 2000 election, it is an article of faith among Democratic leaders that he did. In Florida and New Hampshire, the number of Nader votes was significantly greater than Bush's thin margin of victory; Gore would be President had he won either state. "In 2000 we made a mistake because we ignored Nader for months," says Gore's former campaign manager Donna Brazile. "We gave him time not only to build a credible movement but also to get inside battleground states and hold huge rallies."

This time Nader faces a different challenge of his own. Whereas the consumer advocate got onto nearly every state ballot as the Green Party nominee four years ago, Nader is now trying to do it the hard way as an independent. He says he wants to start a political movement that would transcend party labels. But his independent status requires him to make his way through a dizzying set of rules and deadlines. To get on the ballot in Tennessee, he needs the signatures of only 275 registered voters; in North Carolina it takes 100,532. Nader fell at least 14,000 short of the 64,000 he needed in Texas, and is suing to get the May 10 deadline extended. He could have secured a place on Oregon's ballot by bringing together 1,000 voters for a single event, but only 750 showed for his rally last month in Portland where more than 7,000 came to hear him in 2001.

The state Democratic parties are doing what they can to make it even harder on Nader. In Texas, Democrats sent an e-mail reminding party members that by law they couldn't sign a Nader petition if they had voted in the primary. In Arizona, where a poll shows Nader pulling what could be a decisive 7% of the vote, state Democratic chairman Jim Pederson says the party has assembled a team of lawyers to look at every one of the signatures Nader collects. "Our first objective is to keep him off the ballot," Pederson says. "This vote is about George Bush and John Kerry, and we think it distorts the entire electoral process to have his name on the ballot."

Nader acknowledges that getting on the ballot as an independent is like "climbing a cliff with a slippery rope." But he could be getting a leg up from various third parties. The idea is to have it both ways: collect their endorsements and their access to a line on various state ballots but maintain his "independent" aura. Two weeks ago, he won the nod of the Reform Party, Perot's old outfit, which would automatically put him on the ballot in seven states, including battlegrounds Florida and Michigan, if he chooses. And although Nader says he doesn't want the Green Party's formal nomination again, he could get its endorsement at next month's convention, which would put him on its ballot line in some of 22 states where it has one. Meanwhile, Nader is also forming his own Populist Party, which presumably could endorse him as well and take advantage of the fact that in some states like Florida it is easier for a new party to put a candidate on the ballot than for an independent to get on.

Nader once again puts the Democrats in a delicate situation. As long as Nader is in the race, Kerry will need to tend his left flank, which could make it harder for him to appeal to centrist swing voters. Come fall, Kerry could also find himself in a situation similar to what Gore faced be forced to spend precious time and money campaigning in states like Washington and Maine that, without Nader in the race, would be solidly in his column.

Kerry's allies are laying plans to take on Nader more directly. This week a group of Democratic strategists who previously worked for failed Democratic candidates Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt and Wesley Clark will start airing ads in Arizona and Wisconsin featuring a regretful 2000 Nader voter who laments, "I feel I made a mistake. By supporting Ralph Nader, I actually helped George Bush." Kerry himself is getting blunter too: "A vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for George Bush," he told the Associated Press.

Democratic leaders are vowing not to repeat their mistakes with Nader. For starters, they want him close enough to keep an eye on him. Kerry met with Nader last week; their tense session lasted more than an hour, and both sides say they expect more meetings. Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe makes a point of calling Nader regularly, usually starting the conversation, "So, are you dropping out, Ralph?" At a minimum, McAuliffe has privately asked Nader not to campaign in battleground states. Did he agree? "Of course not," Nader told TIME.

There has been some speculation in Democratic circles that Nader might step aside this fall if the race looks close. But the candidate who says he is running because both parties have become captives of corporate interests has a clear answer to the question of whether he plans to fade away: "No. No. Keep hoping. It's not going to happen. This goes way beyond November. This is a movement that has to proliferate in all directions, year after year." Nader, who has always faulted Gore for losing his own base, says he would accept no blame for a Kerry failure. "If the Democrats cannot beat George Bush, that means they're not Democrats; they're crypto-Republicans. And people will always choose the real thing," Nader says, adding, "The only time to drop out is before you drop in. You do not betray your volunteers and your supporters." The next time you happen to be at a truck pull, don't be surprised if someone asks for your autograph.

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