Nader Emerging as the Threat Democrats Feared

By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE

New York Times

October 16, 2004

WASHINGTON, Oct. 14 - With less than three weeks before the election, Ralph Nader is emerging as just the threat that Democrats feared, with a potential to tip the balance in up to nine states where President Bush and Senator John Kerry are running neck and neck.

Despite a concerted effort by Democrats to derail his independent candidacy, as well as his being struck off the Pennsylvania ballot on Wednesday, Mr. Nader will be on the ballots in more than 30 states.

Polls show that he could influence the outcomes in nine by drawing support from Mr. Kerry. They are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Moreover, six - Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin - were among the top 20 where Mr. Nader drew his strongest support in 2000. If the vote for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry is as evenly divided as the polls suggest, the electoral votes in any one of those states could determine who becomes president.

Mr. Nader repeated this week that he had no intention of leaving the race. He said no one from the Kerry campaign or Democratic National Committee was pressing him behind the scenes to quit, and he said he thought that Mr. Kerry would not make a good president anyway.

"He's not his own man," Mr. Nader said on Tuesday in a telephone interview from California. "Because he takes the liberals for granted, he's allowing Bush to pull him in his direction. It doesn't show much for his character."

That is a change from May, when Mr. Nader met Mr. Kerry at his campaign headquarters and afterward praised him as "very presidential." Mr. Kerry did not ask him to withdraw then, but now the party is in a full-throated plea, with its chairman, Terry McAuliffe, saying on Thursday that Mr. Nader should "end the charade" of a campaign being kept afloat by "corporate backers."

Although Mr. Nader's support is negligible in much of the country, and scant in some of the nine states, even a tiny Nader vote could make a difference, as it did in 2000 in Florida and New Hampshire.

Democrats belittle Mr. Nader's efforts, portraying his campaign as a ragtag version of its former self, with the candidate's appearances limited to easy-to-book locations like college campuses. But they acknowledge that he could make a difference, and even Mr. Kerry has adjusted his stump speech in part to try to appeal to potential Nader voters, who tend to loathe corporate America and fiercely oppose the Iraq war.

Mr. Kerry now casts Mr. Bush as a tool of rich and powerful "special interests," and he has sharpened his critique of Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq.

Several Democratic and left-leaning groups sprung up this year to try to keep Mr. Nader off the ballot in the swing states, fearing he could siphon votes from Mr. Kerry as he did from Al Gore in 2000. In Florida that year, Mr. Nader won 1.6 percent of the vote. That accounted for 97,488 votes, and Mr. Bush beat Mr. Gore there by 537.

In 2000, Mr. Nader won 2.7 percent of the vote nationally. Pollsters say that this year, Mr. Nader's national support has dwindled, from a peak of 5 percent in May to 1.5 percent now.

In some states it is higher. This year in Iowa, the average of the latest polls shows Mr. Kerry with 47.5 percent of the vote, Mr. Bush with 46.6 percent and Mr. Nader with 4 percent.

The average of polls in Minnesota shows 45.5 percent for Mr. Kerry, 45.5 percent for Bush and 2.7 percent for Mr. Nader.

Mr. Nader is still in litigation to be on the ballot in Ohio, where Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are in a dead heat and where Mr. Nader draws 1 percent of the vote. Mr. Nader is also appealing a court's throwing him off the Pennsylvania ballot.

Polls also show Mr. Nader drawing some support from Mr. Bush, though at a much lower level than from Mr. Kerry, which explains why Republicans have been supporting and encouraging his efforts to get on ballots while Democrats have mounted an orchestrated effort to keep him off.

"Though he hurts Kerry more than Bush, there's a potential that he hurts Bush, too," said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has examined Nader voters, although she said potential Nader voters were difficult to find and hard to track.

Mr. Nader maintained in the interview "there is no evidence" that he takes votes from Mr. Kerry. He said surveys by Zogby showed him pulling equally from Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry.

A spokeswoman for Zogby International, Shawnta Walcott, said that Zogby polls showed Mr. Nader drawing far more from Mr. Kerry. She said the polls, aggregated from March through last month, showed that if Mr. Nader was not an option, 41 percent of his supporters went to Mr. Kerry and 15 percent went to Mr. Bush. Thirty percent went elsewhere and 13 percent were undecided.

Ms. Greenberg said that the profile of likely Nader supporters was changing and beginning to resemble that of voters who supported H. Ross Perot, the third-party candidate, in 1996, rather than those who supported Mr. Nader in 2000. Indeed, several celebrities and liberal activists who supported Mr. Nader in 2000 have renounced him and urged other former supporters to vote for Mr. Kerry, because defeating Mr. Bush is their top priority. Mr. Nader's former running mate, Winona LaDuke, has endorsed Mr. Kerry.

Voters who supported Mr. Nader in 2000 tended to split equally between men and women and who were white, liberal and college educated. Ms. Greenberg said voters who supported him tended to be white men, blue collar, fiscally conservative, populist, against open trade, angry about the high cost of health care and prescription drugs and virulently opposed to the Iraq war.

She said Mr. Kerry had helped diminish Mr. Nader's appeal to some of those voters through his advertising and in the debates.

"Nader is taking less out of Kerry now," she said. "So the leftover Nader vote is more conservative," meaning that they were Bush supporters originally but have defected, probably because he has allowed the deficit to balloon.

Still, the Nader factor seems wildly unpredictable.

"Nader is appealing to people who think neither party represents their interests," said David Jones, who runs an anti-Nader Web site, TheNaderFactor.com. "I don't know if we're dealing with the old 2000 voter or the new 2004 voter. The real question about them is will they vote?"

In the interview, Mr. Nader rejected the idea that he was a spoiler.

"I deny the designation entirely," he said. "Everyone is trying to get votes from everyone else. So we're all spoilers or none of us are spoilers."

Mr. Nader said his campaign was at the very least producing "great data" for him to use after the election to fight what he says are restrictive and unfair ballot-access laws. He said that in the long term his current fight would help destroy the two-party dominance of American politics, which he said was his goal.

"We lose to win, eventually," he said. "That's the story of social justice. You have to be willing to lose and fight, and lose and fight, and lose and fight. Until the agenda is won."