Who’s afraid of Nader?
Instead of trying to win votes, the Democrats are trying to stop Ralph Nader from stealing them.
The Democrats have waged a long, desperate and, as it is panning out, largely futile campaign to keep Ralph Nader, the alternative environmentalist candidate from the 2000 US presidential election, off the 2004 ballot.
Conventional Democrat wisdom holds that Nader handed victory on a plate to Republican candidate George W Bush in 2000, by ‘siphoning votes’ from the Democrats’ Al Gore in key swing states.
They cite the fact that in 2000 Gore lost Florida by a (probable) 527 votes, while Nader won about 90,000 votes in that state. In exit polls, many of those who voted Nader said they would have voted for Gore as their second choice. Logically, the argument goes, had Nader not contested Florida, Gore would have won it and the presidency would be his.
Some Democrats have devoted considerable effort and resources to keeping Nader away from the 2004 elections. At the beginning of 2004, politicians, intellectuals, celebrities and party activists pleaded with Nader not to run. Organisations like Ralphdontrun.net and stopnader.com attracted support for their high-profile attempt to embarrass Nader into submission.
When Nader ignored these efforts and declared his candidacy in February 2004, many of his former supporters turned their backs on him. The Green Party chose an alternative candidate, David Cobb, who promised that he would only campaign in the 40 states he deemed to be ‘safe’. In the other races – the so-called battleground states – where votes for him might tip the balance, he said he would ask voters to let their consciences guide them (1).
Nader managed to cobble together a maverick band of supporters, but his campaign slipped out of public view over the summer. True, on one late night chatshow filmmaker Michael Moore literally went on his knees in front of Nader to beg him to drop out of the race – but on the whole the anti-Nader campaign drifted into the background.
By early August, Democrat hopes of success were riding high. The Boston Convention was declared a success, freshly nominated candidate John Kerry was ahead in the polls and party activists truly believed that Bush was on the run.
Now the mood has changed. President Bush has a small but nagging lead in the polls. John Kerry’s campaign looks flawed and Democrat Party strategists appear to be at a loss as to how to turn events around.
As Democrats start to panic, so the bogeyman Ralph Nader reappears in their crosshairs. In recent weeks Democrats have fought bitter legal battles against Nader’s teams in state courts in Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Colorado and Pennsylvania, attempting to have Nader kicked off the ballot. In the coming weeks Nader’s appearance on the ballot will be contested in a further 12 states.
Democrats claim they are using the courts to protect the interests of vulnerable voters. As Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Democratic congresswoman and co-founder of the Ballot Project, a group that has been challenging Nader’s candidacy in several states, explained: ‘Voters need to be able to rely on the law to protect them against sham candidates and sham parties.’ (2)
Nader is by no means a great candidate. His outfit is fashioned from some odd alliances, and he has been shameless in gathering support from anyone who will give it. In some states he is running as the Populist Party candidate, in others he is representing Ross Perot’s Reform party. In states like Michigan he has even used the Republican Party machine to gather signatures.
Nevertheless, voters do not need to be shielded or protected from his influence. Being a maverick and an opportunist should hardly disqualify the man from running for national office. It is hard to see how he threatens voters any more than any other candidate.
Democrats don’t really want to ‘protect voters’ from Nader’s sham party or candidacy – they just want to stop people from being able to vote for him. Democrats showed no such concern about Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992 – a candidacy that arose out of little more than a comment on the Larry King Live show – nor did they complain when he split the Republican vote and aided Bill Clinton’s passage into the White House.
The attempt to kick Nader off the ballot gives an idea how some activists view the American electorate. Anti-Nader campaigners assume that they are the only ones who are capable of doing the electoral maths in this election. They think that voters will vote for Nader without thinking about the consequences, and so rob the Democrats of yet another election.
But in reality people will vote for Nader because, for whatever reason, they prefer him over the other candidates. Everyone knows that the race is close. If voters fail to vote for Kerry it will be for the simple reason that he and his campaign have failed to convince them. Kerry and the Democrats may be getting their excuses in early but, when it comes to it, blaming the other guy for being in the race won’t cut it.
spiked-issue: US election 2004
(1) New York Times, 27 June 2004
(2) New York Times, 18 September 2004
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