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Nader's Flawed Calculus | The Nation

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Nader's Flawed Calculus

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Since launching his independent campaign for the presidency early this year, Ralph Nader has constantly argued that he will draw as many or more votes from Republican George W. Bush as from John Kerry, the President's Democratic challenger.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Yet, as Election Day approaches, it appears that Nader's calculus is off.

If Nader was not on the ballot in key battleground states, according to a new poll conducted for The Nation Institute, three times as many of his backers in battleground states would vote for Kerry as for Bush.

That's a far cry from the picture Nader has been painting as he has continued to campaign in pivotal states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio. In late September, in an interview with The Nation, Nader said, "You are going to be surprised at the number of Republicans who back our campaign. We are going to help beat Bush in a number of these states."

But the results of the first serious battleground-state survey of Nader backers and potential supporters suggests that the reality on November 2 could be very different than the three-time presidential candidate predicts.

Were Nader not in the running, 49 percent of those surveyed said they would switch to Kerry, according to the poll by Lake Snell Perry & Associates, a firm that frequently works for Democrats and public-interest groups. Only 17 percent indicated a preference for Bush. Another 24 percent said they were unsure what they would do, while 10 percent indicated that they would not vote.

The poll results call into question many of the assumptions on which the Nader campaign has been mounted. In addition to discrediting the claim that Nader would draw votes in comparable numbers from both major-party nominees, the survey raises serious doubts about whether the independent candidate will actually draw to the polls citizens who might otherwise avoid voting.

For instance, the survey appears to discredit the claim, advanced by Nader and many in the media, that his campaign is a magnet for young people who are disgusted with the failure of Kerry to take a stronger stand against the war in Iraq or corporate power. Only six percent of Nader's likely backers identified themselves as first-time voters.

National and battleground state polls in recent days have found that Nader is drawing under 2 percent support from the overall electorate. According to a new poll conducted for the Democratic National Committee, support for Nader in a dozen battleground states has fallen from 3 percent last summer to only 1.5 percent now. But that 1.5 percent could still matter a great deal. With the Kerry-Bush race as tight as ever, Democrats and progressive activists continue to express concern that the few votes that go to Nader could tip important battleground states to Bush. They could well be right. In at least seven battleground states--Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Maine and New Hampshire--the Washington Post suggested in an article published Friday "Nader's share of the vote exceeds the thin margin separating Bush and Kerry."

Remember that a number of states--including Florida, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Iowa--were decided for the Republican in 2000 by margins of significantly less than 1 percent. In 2000, Democrats argue, Nader drew substantially more votes than Bush's margin of victory in New Hampshire and in the disputed contest in Florida. Had either of those states gone for Al Gore, the Democrat would have assumed the presidency. A new television commercial, produced by the Democratic Action Team and airing in battleground states, recalls the 2000 results and cries, "Ralph, don't do this to us again."

But while Democratic strategists may despise him, Nader backers maintain high levels of personal loyalty to the man who has for almost forty years been identified with struggles against corporate abuses and excesses.

In the survey of 500 registered voters who say they back Nader or might consider voting for him in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, West Virginia and Wisconsin, Lake Snell Perry & Associates found that Nader backers tended to be individuals who had high regard for the consumer advocate -- they gave him an average rating of 77.4 on a scale of 0 to 100. They also tended to be disdainful of the two major parties.

At the same time, those surveyed expressed deep disapproval of Bush. By a 77-21 margin, those who said they were voting for Nader rated Bush poorly. By a 87-10 margin, those who were identified as potential Nader voters expressed their disapproval of the President.

Naders's likely and potential supporters tend to care about the same issues as the rest of the electorate: the war in Iraq, jobs and the economy and health care. And they appear to be open to appeals that suggest Kerry is significantly different from Bush--and perhaps not so different from Nader--on those issues. When read issue-based messages about the impact that another four years of the Bush-Cheney Administration might have on issues they care about, four in ten likely Nader voters said they found the information "very convincing" in making the case for backing Kerry.

This suggests that the issue-based messages that progressive groups have been using in battleground-state efforts to draw Nader backers into the Kerry column--and to assure that Kerry backers don't drift toward Nader--can be effective. Advertisements in alternative newspapers around the country in the closing days of the campaign will feature statements from author and activist Noam Chomsky and Ben Cohen, the co-founder of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream concern, arguing that there are clear differences between Kerry and Bush, while a recent letter signed by singers Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, along with other prominent backers of Nader's 2000 campaign, makes the case that the issue distinctions between the Democratic and Republican contenders are more than sufficient to argue for a Kerry vote.

By all indications, such appeals are more likely to have an impact that the calls from some quarters--including Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and the Democratic Action Team, the group that is airing those anti-Nader television ads in battleground states-- for Nader to withdraw. Though the new poll data suggests that Nader's exit from the race, even at this late date, could help Kerry, neither the independent candidate nor his aides offer any indication that they would consider such a strategy.

A web-based campaign, found at www.RalphPlease.org, has been trying, in effect, to buy Nader out of the contest by urging Americans to pledge donations to a group Nader founded, Public Citizen, if he withdraws. The site has already garnered pledges of more than $100,000, Nader's response: He calls the initiative "disgraceful" and repeats that, no, he is not leaving the race.

The poll was commissioned by The Nation Institute, a nonprofit foundation devoted to strengthening the independent media. It was conducted by Lake Snell Perry. Click here to download the complete survey results in PDF format.

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