Wrong About Nader

Ralph Nader, left, and his running mate, Matt Gonzalez, at George Washington University Thursday.
Ralph Nader, left, and his running mate, Matt Gonzalez, at George Washington University Thursday. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Douglas Schoen
Sunday, March 2, 2008

When Ralph Nader announced that he was running for president -- again -- last Sunday, commentators and political strategists were quick to express scorn. The announcement itself, ABC's George Stephanopoulos scoffed that morning, "was the high moment of his campaign." In the days that followed, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Post all described Nader's decision to run as an ego trip that represented his political "nadir." Political operatives assured the public that Nader was not to be taken seriously. "People are simply not going to make that mistake again," said Chris Lehane, former press secretary to Al Gore. Even Charlie Black, a senior adviser to John McCain's campaign, predicted that Nader would get "less than 1 percent of the vote."

Not so fast.

Nader is undoubtedly a less appealing candidate than he was in 2000, when by winning 97,000 votes in Florida he famously cost Gore the election. But that doesn't mean 2008 is going to be a repeat of 2004, when Nader attracted a mere 0.038 percent of the popular vote. On the contrary, the circumstances for Nader's candidacy could hardly be better. The conditions this November will be more favorable to an independent, third-party candidacy than ever before. As a result, Nader stands a real chance of matching or even exceeding his 2000 performance, when he won 2.74 percent of the popular vote.

In short, Ralph Nader's candidacy -- and how the other candidates react to it -- may well determine who the next president will be.

By now it is no secret that a large segment of the public has soured on "Washington." To denizens of the District, this can seem a childish, naive sentiment. It's not. What Americans have turned against is the broken two-party system. According to a poll taken last year by the firm I founded, Penn, Schoen & Berland, 61 percent of voters say that having a third-party candidate on the ballot in the presidential race would be beneficial to America. A poll by the Luntz Maslansky Group found that 81 percent of the electorate would consider voting for a third-party candidate.

In 2004, Nader faltered because it was apparent that George W. Bush and John Kerry offered stark alternatives. But 2008 is not 2004. George W. Bush isn't on the ballot this year. What the public wants is change. Research done by Rasmussen Reports in September shows that Nader's candidacy is well positioned to capitalize on that desire. In a four-way race, Nader could get 4 percent, considerably more support than he received in 2000. A centrist alternative could do even better, easily attracting 15 to 30 percent of the electorate. Even Ron Paul could receive as much as 8 percent as a libertarian, fourth-party candidate.

But wait, you say. What about Barack Obama? For that matter, doesn't the emergence of John McCain as the likely Republican nominee prove that the system isn't all that unresponsive to the desires of independents? Hasn't their emergence taken the wind out of potential independent candidates' sails?

To some extent, the answer is clearly yes. But even so, Nader -- and possibly other independent candidates -- have the potential to tap sentiments that more mainstream candidates largely ignore. Most important to Nader's prospects is his ability to tap into a strain of ill will toward corporate America that is particularly noticeable when times are bad, as they are now. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have sought to capitalize on this feeling by sounding populist notes. But Obama and Clinton, compared with Nader, are pikers in this regard.

Nader also supports a single-payer health-care system, dramatic cuts in the military budget and a more open political process. These positions hold considerable appeal for Democrats and independents alike. Nader's presence in the race could well force the Democratic nominee to avoid moving back to the center on these issues during the general election. Even without attracting many voters Nader could thus decisively affect the election results.

Of course, the obstacles to mounting a third-party candidacy are daunting. Getting his name on state ballots will be a challenge. Raising funds and making his message heard will likewise be difficult. Nader's best hope is that the Democratic Party will sabotage itself by descending into a protracted nomination fight. An intraparty squabble that alienates a significant number of Democratic primary voters and caucusgoers might well trigger defections from the party and a turn toward a third-party alternative. Could the Democratic Party take the one step most likely to cost its nominee the presidency in November? Stranger things have happened.

Douglas Schoen, a pollster, is the author of "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System."

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