The Return of Ralph Nader

Andrew E. Busch

February 1, 2004

Amid the hoopla surrounding the Democratic nomination contest and a probable John Kerry nomination, erstwhile presidential candidate and perpetual gadfly Ralph Nader has thrown his name back into the ring for the 2004 election. Who does this help and why?

The conventional wisdom is that Nader’s return to presidential politics will help George W. Bush. Indeed, Democratic and left-wing activists are so convinced of this that they spent considerable effort trying to talk Nader out of it. They did not conceal their unhappiness when he chose to run anyway. Many of them blame Nader for Bush’s 2000 win, pointing especially to Nader’s 90,000 plus votes in Florida (a state that Bush famously carried by only 538 votes). He may also have tipped New Hampshire, with its four electoral votes, to Bush, in a year when a swing of three electoral votes would have made Al Gore president.

There is certainly good cause to imagine that he might hurt the Democratic nominee—any Democratic nominee—in a similar fashion in 2004. This is true both quantitatively and qualitatively. He would draw a certain number of voters—probably not large in absolute terms but potentially decisive in a very close race—away from the normal party of the left. And, if his 2004 campaign is anything like his 2000 campaign and subsequent public discourse, the content of his argument will hurt Democrats more than Republicans. In his book Crashing the Parties, a memoir of the 2000 campaign, Nader contemptuously dismisses Bush and Republicans but reserves his real vitriol for modern Democrats, who, in his view, are not just enemies but traitors. Clearly, John Kerry, with his Washington insider baggage and his documented ties with lobbyists, will present Nader with a juicy target. To the extent that Nader finds some support, he may also hurt the Democrat by forcing him farther to the left, a disability Kerry can ill afford. (In the unlikely event that John Edwards wins the nomination, he may come in for gentler treatment from Nader, whose favorite special interest group is the trial lawyers association.)

On the other hand, the dynamics of three-way races are often hard to predict. The possibility cannot be discounted that Nader might help Democrats in a roundabout kind of way. He may mobilize new voters who will then, at the last minute, desert him for the more electable choice. And, if the Democratic nominee resists the temptation to move left to co-opt him, Nader’s presence in the race may provide a rather skewed benchmark against which to measure the Democrat. Just as Howard Dean helped make John Kerry look moderate in the primaries, perhaps Nader would make him appear moderate in the general election campaign. And if Nader chooses, as independents looking for a hook often do, to change the direction of his rhetoric and aim it primarily against the incumbent, Bush could be looking down a double-barreled shotgun as his father did in 1992.

Perhaps the most likely outcome of all, however, is that Nader will simply fizzle in 2004, and exert no influence on events. Second-time candidacies by surprising independents often prove that timing is everything, and that the circumstances which led to a moment of opportunity seldom endure four years. Ross Perot, the phenom of 1992, saw his vote share fall by over half in 1996. By 2000, his party was a shadow of its former self. John Anderson, who garnered 7 percent of the vote in 1980, gave it another shot in 1984 and went nowhere. The Progressives, who finished well ahead of the Republicans in 1912, were crushed in 1924. Nader has burned a lot of bridges, and those on the left are almost certainly more unified in their desire to beat Bush than they were in 2000. His campaign may have played a crucial role in 2000, but it may well prove little more than a footnote in 2004.

Andrew E. Busch is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.