A Democratic Nadir?

By wrestling to keep Ralph Nader off state ballots, Democrats may have created their worst enemy. Even a few percentage points for the contrarian consumer activist could tip the election

By Rebecca Sinderbrand

Updated: 5:44 p.m. ET Sept. 23, 2004

Sept. 23 – It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Democrats, steeled for battle with alleged presidential spoiler Ralph Nader, decided to fight his quest for ballot access in every state. So when the Nader campaign submitted signatures to appear on the ticket in Texas this fall, a lengthy court battle ensued. In the end, Democrats seemed to emerge victorious.

But was it a Pyrrhic victory?

Because in keeping Nader off the Lone Star State’s ballot, Democrats ensured that the liberal icon wouldn’t be spending his days as he’d originally planned: blasting the president in his home state, which was about as likely to wind up in the Kerry column as the standby line at a Toby Keith concert. Instead, it’s become increasingly clear that Nader, angry over what he calls Democratic “dirty tricks” that have knocked him off some state ballots, will spend the fall blasting presidential candidate John Kerry in vital swing states, where razor-thin margins separate the Democratic challenger from President George W. Bush.

This week, Nader emerged after a tour of battleground states (including Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin) to announce that he was taking his campaign to Florida for the next week, visiting nine cities running down I-95 from Jacksonville to Miami—a triumphal road trip for a candidate whose presence on the ballot in that state was confirmed by a controversial ruling just last week. (Some bitter Democrats still believe Nader’s presence on the ballot in the Sunshine State—where his support in 2000 was greater than the president’s margin of victory—cost Al Gore the presidency.)

“Going into this, I underestimated the mendacity of the Democratic Party,” a defiant Nader told reporters Tuesday. “And I overestimated their smarts.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Nader opted to run as an independent, without the backing and grassroots resources of the national Green Party that supported his last campaign, and with barely a hint of the celebrity support (financial or otherwise) that greeted his 2000 run, some assumed Nader would be nada in this year’s race. And after an initial bump in the polls that found him running ahead of his 2000 pace, he seemed to hit a brick wall, as his bare-bones campaign faced legal hurdles and organized opposition in virtually every state. By late spring, Nader still hadn’t officially qualified for a single state ballot.

But as summer wore on, it grew increasingly clear that Nader had some unlikely fans. A check of campaign-finance records revealed that longtime Bush supporters had discovered a heretofore unrecognized passion for consumer-justice issues, as dozens began forking over the maximum individual donation to the Nader campaign. Meanwhile, in some states, GOP groups started circulating ballot petitions on Nader’s behalf; in Oregon, the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy essentially assumed the bulk of the effort, manning phone banks and gathering signatures.

Nader himself refused to consider any ulterior motive for this newfound GOP support. In his view, conservative Republicans were attracted to his candidacy based on his stands on the issues, and he’ll draw votes equally from Kerry and Bush. But even now, as his poll numbers start to ebb a bit nationally, some Democrats continue to fight, worrying that Nader’s sliver of support in battleground states could prove fatal to Kerry in a race so close that every swing state has the potential to decide the election.

Take New Jersey: the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Nader’s support there has slid from 7 percent earlier this summer—when Kerry led comfortably—to just 2 percent earlier this month. But even that number is giving Garden State Democrats some sleepless nights. Because even though New Jersey may yet return safely to Blue State status, that same poll finds Bush and Kerry now tied at 48 percent each among likely voters. In Colorado, the latest Rasmussen poll finds the two major candidates neck and neck (Bush, 46 percent; Kerry, 45 percent) with Nader pulling 3 percent. The Nader vote—even at its lowest levels of the year—could be enough to influence the outcome in many key states if the race were held today.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, where a split Elections Board decided just this week to confirm Nader’s presence on the ballot, attack ads created by TheNaderFactor.com, an effort organized by longtime Democratic staffers, are being funded by a progressive group. The effort seems a bit odd on its face: the latest poll (from ARG) finds Nader’s support has slipped to just 1 percent of the vote statewide. But that same poll also reveals that Kerry’s summer lead in Wisconsin has disappeared completely; the two candidates are now tied at 46 percent in a state Al Gore won by just under 6,000 votes.

It’s clear, despite campaign pledges to the contrary, that Nader won’t reprise his showing of four years ago, when he made it onto the ballot in 43 states. The Nader camp says it’s managed to get listed in 29 states, although many of these rulings are still being contested. Just this week, even as Pennsylvania provisionally approved a ballot spot for him, Arkansas and Illinois rejected the campaign’s appeals, and Nader was forced to take his case to New Mexico’s highest court. In all, his campaign is struggling to deal with at least 21 legal cases in 17 states—all just to get on or stay on the ballot. (Nader himself admitted this week that the cases were “draining the campaign’s time and resources” and added darkly that he was holding Kerry “directly responsible.”)

Some experts also believe that the state-by-state polls—which seem to shift almost daily—may be registering artificially high support in some areas based on Nader’s anti-Iraq war stand, suggesting that support may not translate into actual votes.

Still, many Democrats aren’t taking any chances. Even though Nader has consistently ruled it out, they continue to press for his withdrawal from the race. And regardless of the outcome this year, voters may not have seen the last of Nader: the contrary candidate has refused to rule out a presidential run in 2008.
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.