So Much for the ‘Nader Effect’

It’s the summer of a presidential election year, which means it’s time to renew, for the fourth time since 1996, our quadrennial discussion of the hugely consequential role that Ralph Nader is poised to play in November.

The aging consumer advocate, in case you’ve forgotten or didn’t know in the first place, announced his candidacy on Meet the Press over the winter and, besides scoring some headlines in June when an indicted referee lent some (but not much) credence to his NBA conspiracy theories, hasn’t been heard from much since – until this week, when NBC News and The Wall Street Journal included his name in their latest poll. The result: Nader is scoring 5 percent (and, for that matter, Libertarian Bob Barr is nabbing 2 percent).

And so now we’re hearing, yet again, all about the Nader Effect. (Did you know that he might have cost Al Gore the election in 2000?) This time, though, there’s a catch. The poll found Nader (and Barr) hurting the Republican candidate, and not the Democrat. In a one-on-one matchup, Barack Obama leads John McCain by six points, 47 to 41 percent. But with Nader and Barr in the mix (and the sample size cut in half), Obama’s margin explodes to 13 points – 48 to 35. It’s a result that undercuts the conventional wisdom that Nader’s leftist agenda appeals almost exclusively to voters who’d otherwise back Democrats.

This reflects the enthusiasm gap that’s been noted in previous polling. When fringe candidates are included in national polls, their support is typically inflated, with respondents invoking their names in lieu of “none of the above.” Obama enjoys an unusually large and loyal following, and the anti-G.O.P. political climate makes Democrats who are ambivalent about him much more likely to stay loyal to their party. McCain, meanwhile, faces mistrust from within his own party and hesitation from independents who may still respect him personally but who are now deeply suspicious of anyone or anything associated with the Republican Party. And so it is McCain, with his softer and more conflicted support, who suffers when pollsters start giving respondents more choices.

This is certainly a phenomenon worth noting, but the publicity this poll is receiving probably isn’t a good thing, since it only encourages frenzied talk about all of the ways that Nader (or Barr – or even Cynthia McKinney, this year’s Green Party candidate, who figures to have her name added to a poll at some point) could cause mischief in November. This is a radically overstated concern, one that gets far more attention than it deserves. Almost certainly, Nader and all of the other third-party entrants will play no role in shaping the final outcome.

Nader’s own history suggests this. Four years ago at this same time, as he was mounting an equally unnoticed effort, pollsters threw his name into another survey – and reported back that he was running at 5 percent. That prompted a wave of familiar stories about his spoiler potential in the Bush-Kerry race. But he ended up with just 465,000 votes and 0.39 percent of the popular vote – barely ahead of Libertarian Michael Badnarik.

The same thing happened in 1996, the first year Nader ran in a general election. (Well, that may be the wrong way of phrasing it – he only consented to the Green Party’s request to field him as their candidate in the handful of states where they had ballot access and adamantly refused to campaign himself.) Polls in some of those states – like California – showed Nader in the mid-to-high single digits, and heated media speculation ensued. Had Bill Clinton’s triangulation fatally alienated him from the left? Would Nader pull just enough votes from the president to hand California and a few other states – and the presidency! – to Bob Dole? It was all foolishness. Nader finished with 0.7 percent of the vote – less than the Libertarian and U.S. Taxpayers’ Party nominees combined.

Those performances are consistent with what any third-party candidate can expect to attain. The Libertarians, for instance, have been fielding candidates since 1972 and are a well-organized and well-known bunch. Many people casually describe themselves as having libertarian instincts. But they don’t vote that way. Despite attaining 50-state ballot access in almost every election, the best the party has ever achieved is 1.1 percent in 1980. And there was a simple explanation for that showing: that year, the party nominated David Koch, one of the richest men in the country, for vice president, and Koch bankrolled an unprecedented series of five-minute prime-time ads on the national broadcast networks. Besides ’80, the Libertarians have done well to crack 0.5 percent of the vote.

There is a clear limit to the number of voters who will actually pull the lever for a minor-party candidate, even if that candidate is well known, like Nader. These candidates may score respectably in pre-election polls – when their names are actually included – but almost all of this support is an illusion that vanishes come Election Day.

Of course, that leaves the case of Nader in 2000, when he did – supposedly – cost Gore the election. But several things need to be said about this.

One is that the mood of the electorate that year was unusually apathetic (if not hostile) to the major-party candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush. Both (but Bush in particular) had defeated primary opponents who were well liked by political independents. The economy seemed strong and the country was at peace. The divisions between the parties were blurry and the political atmosphere was calm.

As a result, Nader became a more appealing option not just for leftists, but also for independents who liked neither major-party candidate – and didn’t feel it really made a difference which party prevailed. This allowed Nader to expand his Election Day performance – to 2.7 percent. (As usual, though, that figure still represented a drop-off from his performance in pre-election polls.)

This was a truly extraordinary circumstance. The familiarity of Nader’s name made him more alluring than the other minor-party candidates (even Pat Buchanan), and the lack of a credible, well-financed independent guaranteed that Nader would monopolize the unusually high number of voters who wanted to vote against both major parties. Nader has plenty of left-wingers behind him, but they were not an overwhelming component of his coalition.

It was clear in the summer and fall of 2000 that Nader’s solid poll numbers would probably translate into meaningful Election Day support – just as it was clear in ’96 and ’04 that they wouldn’t. This year is nothing like 2000. The electorate is engaged, the divisions between the parties are clear, and voters clearly believe that it matters very much who wins. In a climate like this, theories about mass defections from one party’s base to a fringe candidate generally don’t hold up – as Eugene McCarthy, a brand-name politician, learned when he ran as an independent in 1976 and finished with well under 1 percent.

Nader and Barr and McKinney will all get their share of votes. But those shares will almost certainly be too small to matter, no matter what the polls say now. So Much for the ‘Nader Effect’