Nader's Back. Now What? In the latest Politically Speaking column, National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson gauges the impact of Ralph Nader's independent run for the White House.
NPR logo Nader's Back. Now What?

Nader's Back. Now What?

Ralph Nader speaks at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Feb. 23, 2004. Reuters Limited hide caption

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Reuters Limited

He's baaaaaaaaack! Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate many Democrats blame for depriving Al Gore of the presidency in 2000, announced Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that he will indeed run again. But this time he's really going it alone.

Nader in 2000 enjoyed the institutional support, however modest, of the Green Party, which is well organized in a number of states, especially in the West. Instead, this time, Nader will run as an independent. And that means getting himself on the ballot in each of the 50 states - or as many as practicable given his late start.

Nader himself acknowledged this will be a very tough climb — collecting about 1.5 million signatures on petitions around the country — and doing it on tight deadlines with little money to spend. In some states, the cutoff is just around the corner. In Texas, it's May 13, and anyone who votes in the March primaries there is thereby rendered ineligible to sign an independent's petition.

Also complicating the ballot effort will be Democrats in some states who will feel little compunction about going to court to block Nader's ballot access. In 2000, this meant blocking the Green Party. This time, it's all about Ralph. And the Democrats are far more united now in their horror at his candidacy.

Most observers agree that Nader in 2004 will pull fewer votes than he did last time, when he got 2.8 percent of the total nationwide but hit highs like the 5 percent that nearly tipped Oregon (Gore won by half of one percentage point). It's not Nader's national total but his ability to tip battleground states that's got Democrats deeply worried.

Nader has always rejected this analysis. He says that many of his voters in 2000 would not have turned out at all had it not been for him, and he says many others would not have voted for Gore. He also notes that there were other alternative candidates in 2000 — Pat Buchanan, for example — who might have cost Al Gore the states of Florida or New Hampshire. In those two states, Bush's victories were small enough, and the Nader share large enough, that Gore getting a preponderance of the Nader votes would have been enough to claim the state — and with it the Electoral College. The Supreme Court could have taken December off.

Nader has also argued that his campaign in 2000 brought out voters who helped Democrats win other races. It is possible that extra turnout inspired by Nader swelled the vote for Maria Cantwell in Washington state, where she eked out a recount victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.

But no one thinks Nader is running to help down-ballot Democrats. His stated rationale is much as it was in 2000: that there's not enough difference between the Republican and Democratic parties and someone needs to fight what he calls the duopoly. He says we are suffering from "a shortage of democracy" because both parties are in thrall to their "corporate paymasters."

We have already heard some of this talk on the campaign trail this year. Most notably, it was a theme for Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who once led the pack but has now suspended his campaign. It has also informed the speeches of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York activist, and strains have been audible in the pitches of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Even Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a free trader in the Senate, has been faulting the Bush administration for mishandling NAFTA and letting jobs go overseas.

Now that Nader is running, will he not pull the Democrats' debate even further to the left on trade and other issues, as some argue he did in 2000?

One answer to that question came with the first round of responses to Nader's announcement, as neither party made much of an effort to hide its emotions. The White House had instructed Republicans not to gloat, and they restrained themselves as much as they could. Still, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared that "Republicans love Ralph Nader," and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, mentioned by some as a Democratic vice presidential prospect, minced no words in dubbing Nader's run "an act of total vanity and ego satisfaction."

Nader may have lots fewer friends than last time he entered the presidential fray, but he could still have as much impact on the outcome.