By identifying himself as an antiwar candidate seeking the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and by using his still considerable media skills to spread the word about his stance, Ralph Nader has given his presidential candidacy a boost that ought to be noted by Democratic strategists. Among recent polls that have detected movement in his direction is one taken in early May by the Associated Press and appearing under the headline, “Bush down, Kerry no gain.” It showed Nader winning the support of 7 percent of those surveyed–more than double the 2.7 percent he won in 2000 as the Green Party candidate and his best showing so far this year. “This is Nader’s moment,” says University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, who tracks third-party politics. “Suddenly, his sails are filling out.”
In truth, Nader is still having trouble floating his boat, but he’s giving evidence that there may be political potency in an antiwar stance that articulates the growing frustration with George W. Bush and his war. It remains to be seen whether Nader’s stronger than expected position, particularly among young voters, will aid the efforts of peace activists pressing Kerry to develop a message that appeals to people who want out of Iraq. The presumptive Democratic nominee is still trying to lie low on the issue, hoping to gain the support of Americans, antiwar or not, who reach the conclusion that Bush has so mismanaged the occupation that he has to go. But Nader characterizes Kerry’s current line on the war–“we do not have the choice to pick up and leave”–as “the exact position needed not to get any [new] votes on the issue.”
Nader seemed to be going nowhere fast in the first stages of his independent campaign, when he reprised his 2000 rhetoric. But a couple of weeks into April, the month that would see more American deaths in Iraq than any since the war began, he condemned the “stay the course” rhetoric of the Bush and Kerry camps and declared, “The way to save US and Iraqi lives and reverse the escalating spiral of violence is for the United States to go back home.” Nader praised Kerry’s emphasis on multilateralism while dismissing Bush as a “messianic militarist.” Still, his most devastating comment was a shot at Kerry: “I wish he would just repeat what he said when he was 27 years old before the Senate, which is: How do you tell a soldier to die for a mistake?”
Nader’s antiwar enthusiasm is viewed cynically by some, who note that he was a no-show at major antiwar rallies last year. And it has not inspired much excitement among the organized antiwar community. Eli Pariser, who has been at the center of MoveOn.org’s antiwar work, says he sees “unanimity behind Kerry” among the online activist community’s members. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, says while he hears “a lot of murmuring” on Kerry’s war stance, “Bush unifies progressives on Kerry the way Clinton unified conservatives.”
Yet Nader’s numbers have improved in several polls taken since he began highlighting his antiwar views: He’s up from 3 percent to 6 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News survey, and as high as 8 percent in polls out of battleground states New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Perhaps more significant, Nader garnered 12 percent among likely voters under 30 surveyed by Newsweek. And, yes, Nader is drawing disproportionately from voters who rank Kerry, not Bush, as their second choice.
Kerry’s “got a Nader problem,” says David Cortright, a fellow at Notre Dame’s Institute for International Peace Studies. And the problem could get worse as mainstream antiwar groups that are part of the Win Without War coalition move to embrace a call for withdrawal from Iraq. Although many prominent activists from groups associated with the coalition say they plan to vote for Kerry, any talk about a timeline for extracting US troops highlights the fact that neither Bush nor Kerry has one.