Who's Afraid of Ralph Nader?

During a grilling of Ralph Nader on Sunday morning, Tim Russert noted that the 73-year-old consumer advocate is now launching his third presidential campaign and asked if Nader was worried about becoming the Wendell Willkie of his generation.

Actually, the independent bid that Nader announced on “Meet the Press” will be his fifth White House campaign: Besides his 2004 and 2000 efforts, there was also 1996, when he ran as the Green Party’s nominee in about 10 states; and 1992, when he ran as a write-in candidate in a series of Democratic primaries to protest the lack of a “none of the above” option on the ballot.

And the historical comparison that Russert probably should have reached for was not Willkie, the progressive Republican who won his party’s nod in 1940 and waged an unsuccessful but credible follow-up bid in 1944, but rather Harold Stassen, the one-time governor of Minnesota who embarked on no fewer than nine increasingly hopeless presidential campaigns between 1948 and 1992.

But the point is well taken: Nader has become the new Stassen, whose final futile campaign fittingly dovetailed with Nader’s first, in 1992. In fact, when it comes to presidential politics, he’s never been anything but a Stassen, a gadfly with a familiar name but little more than a fringe following.

In ’92, Nader’s write-in push netted 6,300 votes. In the ’96 general election, he polled 685,000 votes — about 200,000 more than Libertarian Harry Browne, and good for 0.7 percent of the popular vote. And in ‘04, despite considerable media attention to his spoiler potential, he secured a mere 465,000 votes, beating out Libertarian Michael Badnarik by 67,000 votes.

That leaves 2000, when his performance swelled to 2.7 percent, with 2.8 million popular votes (and a nine-to-one margin over that year’s Libertarian candidate). The 2000 election will almost assuredly be Nader’s legacy: Long ago, a “he cost Al Gore the presidency” narrative took hold, something that — as Russert’s questions on Sunday indicated — Nader will never shake.

As Nader tried mightily to express on Sunday, the “blame Nader” reading of the 2000 results represents a dramatic oversimplification of a complex set of circumstances. There were hundreds of thousands of Democrats in Florida alone who voted for George W. Bush, for instance, just as there was the miserable campaign that Gore waged, which led to his defeat in numerous winnable states, including his own Tennessee. And the presence of several right-leaning third-party candidates — like Pat Buchanan and Browne the Libertarian — could also be blamed for Bush’s narrow losses in New Mexico, Wisconsin and Iowa, the same way Nader is blamed for Gore’s loss in Florida.

But the most glaring problem with this idea is the assumption that Nader’s votes must automatically represent people who would otherwise have supported Gore. Logically, this makes sense, given the audience that is likely to be swayed by Nader’s left-of-center message. But politics is never this rational. (Just consider the hordes of anti-Iraq-war independents who have voted in G.O.P. primaries for John McCain — the war’s staunchest Congressional defender.)

Nader ran strongly in 2000 because of the unique dynamics of that year’s race, not because of his own ideological message. In picking their candidates that year, the two major parties both essentially gave the middle finger to independent-minded voters, who had been lopsidedly attracted to Bill Bradley in the Democratic race and McCain in the Republican race.

But the party establishments instead saw to it that two of the most conventional and least inspiring candidates imaginable were nominated: a wooden vice-president with a penchant for condescension, and an intellectually shallow and largely unaccomplished legacy politician whose main experience was holding the nation’s weakest governorship for six years. A popular bumper sticker emerged in the summer of 2000 deriding them as “Gush and Bore.”

That created an opening for Nader, who became the default “none of the above” candidate for many Americans across the ideological spectrum. His poll numbers ran in the mid to high single digits for much of the campaign, although they crashed on Election Day, probably because the Bush-Gore race seemed tight and casual voters decided they’d rather vote for someone with a chance of winning.

As Nader pointed out on “Meet the Press,” surveys have found that at least a quarter of his vote came from people who listed Bush as their second choice — not Gore. And nearly 40 percent said they would simply have stayed home if Nader hadn’t been on the ballot. His “theft” from Gore was not nearly as clear-cut as history records.

The broader point, though, is that 2000 was the exception for Nader as a presidential candidate, not the rule. The “Gush-Bore” apathy that prevailed in 2000 will be absent this fall, partly because the stakes are perceived as much higher (the country was at peace and the economy seemed strong in 2000) and partly because, in Barack Obama and McCain, the two parties are poised to field candidates who won’t create a broad “none of the above” desire.

And that should sentence Nader to a worse showing than he enjoyed in 2004 and 1996, when he barely registered in the returns. His name recognition remains high, but with so many hopeless campaigns under his belt, it’s easier than ever for voters to tune him out. As Stassen himself proved, perennial candidates usually attain a high-water mark (for Stassen it came in 1948, his second bid) and then watch helplessly as their share of the electorate diminishes in subsequent elections. He also faces the hurdle of qualifying for state ballots without the assistance of a third-party organization (like the Greens, who backed him in 2000). In ’04, Nader only made about 30 ballots.

Sure, there are those who will argue that any votes Nader receives will be at Obama’s expense. But Nader’s core following — probably a few hundred thousand voters nationwide — have myriad reasons for backing him. Many will be protest votes, from people who abhor the two-party system, or who have some kind of grudge against the major candidates that can’t be encapsulated in polling. A small chunk of the electorate is always going to reject the two major-party candidates, whether they side with Nader or one of the lesser-known third-party candidates.

No doubt, we will be subjected to countless stories over the next few months about whether Nader is about to spoil another election. But he’s really not worth the trouble.

Who's Afraid of Ralph Nader?