It has been said lately, perhaps a bit prematurely, that President George W. Bush is in a heap of trouble and that the November election is John Kerry's to lose. Though polls and recent events do support this conclusion, let's add a different possibility: It may actually be Ralph Nader's to lose.
Nader has been repeatedly claiming that he'll pull more votes from Bush than from Kerry. But now comes a new study that ought to put those arguments to rest.
In light of its findings, the organization that did the study, DontVoteRalph.net, asks a poignant question: "Nader's continued use of the claim that he'll help beat Bush would now call into question the very foundation of Nader's remarkable career in public life: his honesty. It's one thing to engage in wishful thinking, or even in the inevitable exaggerations of advocacy. But when do exaggerations become deceit?"
Back in 2000, Nader ran on the alluring premise that there was no real difference between the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates whom he dubbed "Tweedledum and Tweedledee." Pointing to unsavory connections between campaign donors and the sweetheart policies that followed as standard operating procedure within both parties, Nader successfully made his case to nearly 2.9 million voters -- or 2.7 per cent of all votes cast.
But the smallish number is deceptive. As clearly evidenced by Gore's loss of the election -- despite his victory in the popular vote -- it's the states that determine the outcome. At the very least, Nader's numbers helped give Florida to Bush in an election so close that any single state would have handed Gore the White House.
After nearly four years of Bush, Nader can't make the Tweedledum v. Tweedledee argument, so he has opted for a different, and decidedly murkier, strategy.
Nader's rationale is now two-pronged. On the one hand, he claims his presence will pull the Democratic Party to the left, lighting up and lassoing in an otherwise uninspired liberal and progressive bloc to vote for a new and improved Kerry. Why this crowd wouldn't just vote for Nader, or whether an equal number of center-leaning voters wouldn't abandon Kerry, is left unanswered. On the other hand sits Nader's assertion that he's not a "spoiler" because he will attract "conservative voters who are furious at Bush." And even this: "Very few of my votes will come from Democrats."
Empirically speaking, this is utter nonsense.
The DontVoteRalph.net study looked at every poll since Nader entered the race this time that measured Bush and Kerry head-to-head as well as a three-way race with Bush, Kerry and Nader. Of the 37 such polls, Nader pulls votes directly from Kerry in 32 and four show no difference. Only one, a Fox News poll, shows Nader pulling votes from Bush by 1%. These results also happen to be consistent with exit polls from 2000 which showed that Nader voters would have voted for Gore twice as often as for Bush.
There is a certain "duh" factor to the study. Who seriously believes that Nader has any strong appeal to conservatives? Sure, his platform includes positions some fiscal conservatives might support; but his Green Party background, lack of Christian credentials, liberal social agenda, anti-corporate themes and reputation as a "tree hugger" all render him an unlikely choice for conservatives. Angry at Bush or not, the idea that conservatives will storm the polls for Nader is about as silly as the idea that Democrats will defect to, say, Pat Buchanan, because he opposed the Iraq war. In any case, intuitive arguments are just that; the poll numbers speak for themselves.
Democrats and Nader have argued for nearly four years whether Nader "lost the election" in 2000 or not. They are both half-right. There are a number of reasons why Gore lost the election -- from illegal tampering in the Florida election to the press's pack mentality to Gore's Republican-lite platform -- but one of them is undeniably Nader. In fact, Nader's argument isn't that his presence wasn't responsible for tipping the election to Bush, it's that it wasn't the only thing that did: "Gore slipped on a dozen banana peels in 2000; I was only one of them."
The question remains: Why does Nader keep saying now that he will take away more votes from Bush than Kerry, especially when that notion is repeatedly refuted by polls?
Nader campaign spokesman Kevin Zeese was not a happy man when we talked with him. In fact, his anger was palpable. Zeese's response to the Don'tVoteRalph.net study included many stopovers but no particular destination: "It's too early to look at the polls." "Kerry should talk to the 8 million Democrats who voted for Bush." "He does have the support of the Reform Party." "Go ahead, write a story on the polls if you want a shallow story."
Zeese claims Nader has a lot of conservative support and he mentioned an upcoming feature article in Pat Buchanan's American Conservative magazine, adding, "We will probably get fairer treatment from the American Conservative (than from AlterNet)."
It's unnerving to think that the Nader camp doesn't allow for the possibility that high-profile conservatives and conservative publications might just have ulterior motives -- especially in light of the polls as shown by the study. It doesn't take a genius to understand how some Republicans might want to support Nader as a way of opposing Kerry. Is it hard to understand why the only poll in the 37-poll study showing Nader hurting Bush came from the "fair and balanced" folks at Fox News? Or why conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and Grover Norquist might say the right things about Nader for the wrong reasons?
But the Nader campaign's disappointment is understandable. A progressive candidate no longer affiliated with the nation's largest progressive party (the Greens), discouraged by the nation's most prominent progressive magazine (the Nation), and basically abandoned by the nation's best-known progressives (Michael Moore included), has got to have an enormous amount of chutzpah just to persevere.
Still, one man's chutzpah is another man's blindness. Persevering, in this case, may well guarantee four more years of Bush. As Joel Kovel, a former Green Party candidate for senator from New York commented, "Tens of millions of people, including a lot of radicals, believe that Bush's men are moving to rip up the Constitution and fundamentally restructure the American republic to destroy the slim chance of democratic renewal upon which green electoral politics, along with much else, rests."
Let's make one thing clear: Ralph Nader absolutely has the right to run, the right to make his opinions heard (many, many of which this repentant Nader voter agrees with wholeheartedly), and the right to make the case that two parties are too few parties. But the emergence of this study does take aim at Nader's legacy. The new challenge presenting itself to a figure, known universally as a truth-teller, is to tell the truth. It would be far more consistent with his record of honesty and integrity if Nader would simply lose the "I will take more votes from Bush than Kerry" argument.
For many younger people, their earliest memories of Nader aren't actually of the man himself but of MAD Magazine's frequent send-ups of an American icon: "Ralph Nader: Consumer Advocate." They weren't altogether flattering; he always looked a bit uncomfortable, like an alien inhabiting, for the first time, the body of a human. But they never, ever suggested that he was anything but honest. A geeky goody-goody, perhaps. But on the level, always on the level. Nader should run if he truly believes it's the best thing for America, but he must now drop the argument that he's hurting Bush. It just aint so.
Evan Derkacz is an Editorial Fellow at AlterNet.