The best-case scenario for Ralph Nader’s fourth presidential campaign — a 1992 write-in effort in the New Hampshire primary, Green Party runs in 1996 and 2000, and the independent candidacy he announced on Sunday — is to pull a Norman Thomas. In the Great Depression election of 1932, Democrats worried that Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate, would draw off votes in key states and help reelect Republican President Herbert Hoover. When the ballots were counted, however, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hoover in all but six states and was swept into the White House. At the same time, Thomas won close to 900,000 votes nationwide, and in many state his backers provided a cushion of votes for Democrats who swept local, state and congressional races. Thomas was invited to the White House, treated with respect on Capitol Hill and credited with providing the inspiration for important elements of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The worst-case scenario for Nader’s 2004 campaign is the James Birney circumstance. Birney, a prominent attorney who served as secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, sought the presidency in 1840 and again in 1844 as the candidate of the abolitionist Liberty Party. Birney’s second run for the presidency secured only 62,103 votes, out of 2.7 million cast nationwide. But Birney took away enough votes in key states such as New York from Whig Henry Clay, a more cautious critic of the expansion of slavery, to tip the election to Democrat James K. Polk, who campaigned on a promise to annex Texas as a slave state. Polk quickly did just that, and then ordered the invasion of Mexico. Until his death in 1857, Birney, the passionate abolitionist, was blamed for giving pro-slavery forces an upper hand at a critical stage in American politics.
Somewhere between those best- and worst-case scenarios lies the likely result for Nader this year. It is far less dramatic. Indeed, the most likely scenario for Nader in 2004 is that he will not matter much.
Running as an independent, Nader will not be able to capture the ballots lines nor the considerable enthusiasm of the Green Party’s volunteer infrastructure, which played a critical role in securing him ballot status in 43 states and the District of Columbia in 2000. And running in a year when beating George W. Bush has emerged as the central issue for millions of progressives, Nader will also have to make this race without the assistance of long-time friends and backers such as Ronnie Dugger, Michael Moore and Jim Hightower. As a result, the best bet is that Nader’s name will be on fewer state ballots than in 2000; he might not even secure the roughly two dozen ballot lines he had in 1996. If this turns out to be the case, Nader will have a much harder time arguing for his inclusion in the debates. And, come November, he will be much more likely to end up as an asterisk.
Of course, Nader sees things differently. Running as an independent reformer, he says, he will have greater appeal to the disenchanted of all parties. Currently, he’s suggesting that disappointed supporters of Howard Dean, turned off by the somnambulant, centrist candidacy of John Kerry, might exit the Democratic column and search Nader’s name out on the margins of state ballot that are reserved for independent candidates.