Charlie Cook: Nader Could Cost the Demopcrats the Election in 2004 (As He Did in 2000)

Roundup: Media's Take

Charlie Cook, in the NYT (March 9, 2004)

After the initial stir, Ralph Nader's entry into the presidential campaign has been widely dismissed as the folly of an over-the-hill egomaniac. While Mr. Nader's critics might be right about his character, a look at the current polls and the election results from 2000 show that his independent candidacy cannot be ignored. And while I agree with the conventional wisdom that he will get far fewer votes than the 2.7 percent of the electorate he received four years ago, the race between President Bush and John Kerry may very well be so close that even a declawed Ralph Nader could tip the election to the incumbent.

Remember that Mr. Nader, running as the Green Party nominee, cost Al Gore two states, Florida and New Hampshire, either of which would have given the vice president a victory in 2000. In Florida, which George W. Bush carried by 537 votes, Mr. Nader received nearly 100,000 votes. In New Hampshire, which Mr. Bush won by 7,211 votes, Mr. Nader pulled in more than 22,000. National exit polls by the Voter News Service showed that had Mr. Nader not run, 47 percent of his supporters would have voted for Al Gore, while only 21 percent would have voted for Mr. Bush.

Recent national polls suggest that a similar dynamic may play out this time around. While surveys that test a two-way contest between President Bush and Senator Kerry generally show the senator ahead by a few points, those that add Mr. Nader to the mix put the race at a dead heat — or they give the president a narrow edge. A national survey last week by The Associated Press and Ipsos Public Affairs showed the president garnering 46 percent, Senator Kerry 45 percent and Mr. Nader 6 percent.

That poll, which was taken only a week and a half after Mr. Nader dropped his bombshell, likely overstates the support he will carry into November. After all, the circumstances are very different from what they were in 2000. Back then, many moderates and liberals were ambivalent about the Clinton-Gore administration; what's more, George W. Bush was well-positioned as a relatively unthreatening" compassionate conservative." To the independent-minded voters on the left who fled to Mr. Nader, the choice between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore just wasn't all that stark.

Today, Mr. Bush is a far more polarizing figure, with former Nader supporters among his most vociferous detractors. My hunch is that some of the most miserable people in America are the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. Thus it seems reasonable that, nationwide, Mr. Nader will garner just half or even a third of his support from last time.

Even so, however, he may still be able to tilt the election to the Republicans.

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